Athens opens Paralympics with extravaganza
Some 70,000 spectators filled the Athens Olympic stadium to watch the densely choreographed and emotionally-charged opening ceremony of the 12th Paralympics, the world's premier competition for disabled athletes.
The Games begin on Saturday and will last twelve days, ending on September 28.
Following the Greek national anthem, the four-hour extravaganza of light, sound and symbolism began with the stirring procession of the athletes grouped by country, 136 nations in all.
That was six fewer than originally announced, but 11 more than the Sydney Games in 2000, making this the most attended Paralympics in history.
The delegations large and small, ranging from Benin and Afghanistan to the huge contingents from the United States and China, paraded around a towering 26-meter oak in the middle of the pitch, standing as a steadfast symbol of deeply rooted life.
The athletes -- some in wheel chairs, others walking on high-performance prosthetics -- paraded to the thundering beat of a percussion ensemble playing one of many pieces composed for the occasion.
The crowd responded enthusiastically, breaking into chant and song as the Greek delegation brought of the rear and made its way around the track.
As was the case during the summer Games, which ended here barely three weeks ago, Iraq was given one of the warmest ovations of the evening, along with the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus.
One athlete from Turkmenistan earned a great roar of approval when he cast aside his crutches and began to walk on his hands.
The almost hypnotic percussive beat, lasting almost two hours as the 4000 athletes and their entourages filed past, changed slightly to reflect country of origin: a bit of samba for Brazil, an oriental lilt for Arab countries, a touch of flamenco for Spain.
At the end of the procession, Gianni Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 organizing committee, officially welcomed all the Athletes and declared the Games open.
The second phase of the evening featured a series of meticulously choreographed performances designed to evoke basic elements: fire, water, wind and the sun, and featured the lighting of the Paralympic flame.
The 4000 elite disabled athletes will compete over 12 days in 19 disciplines, including swimming, athletics, archery, wheelchair basketball, cycling, equestrian, wheelchair fencing, 5-a-side and 7-a-side football, goalball, judo, powerlifting, sailing, shooting, table tennis, wheelchair tennis, volleyball, wheelchair rugby and boccia.