Rio Paralympics: opening ceremony embraced by Brazil

8 September 2016

by Barney Cullum

Faith in the continuing appeal of the Paralympic Games was rewarded last night as over 50,000 ticket-holders flocked to fill Brazil’s most famous arena, the Maracana.

The opening ceremony was a true carnival — one that will be remembered for its warm light shows, tender Portuguese melodies and, perhaps more than anything else, its somersaulting wheelchair stunt performer.

Reinventing disability as unbreakability is nothing new of course. It has been fashionable since the last games, London 2012. The ‘superhuman’ portrayal frustrates individuals who would rather have greater empathy, or practical support, than they would deferential adulation. But on the evidence of last night, and the exploits of Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham, an appetite remains elsewhere.

It should be said that it’s not just choreographers and marketing types who have warmed to the superhuman theme. Paralympians generally seem flattered by the term. This debate was not resolved last night, but it wasn’t dwelled upon either.

The directors later invited us to question how much we use our sight over other senses, achieving this by flooding the arena with a huge flash of white light. A perfectly synchronised dance routine from two visually impaired dancers then reversed the rhetoric.

The ceremony was full of artistry. It was also, in its second half — as is customary — finally full of athletes. The stars of the games have almost been lost over the last two months. Politics has dictated that we’ve heard more from the International Paralympic Committee of late than the Paralympians they support. That may change now, after yesterday’s rousing spectacle.

The Brazil team received a proud cheer when they came out to complete a lap of the track at dusk, but so did Chile, Colombia — all the South American delegations. With this being the first games on the continent, it bodes well that there are strong signs of pan-American interest.

Pubs and bars across Rio were showing the opening ceremony too. Although not universally popular, momentum has continued on from the Olympics in Brazil. There appears now to be a chance for the achievements of elite athletes — who happen to have disabilities — to be celebrated like never seen before in Latin America.

Barney Cullum is a freelance journalist — covering the games for a range of organisations — and is an external communications officer for Leonard Cheshire Disability. A version of this article also appears on PosAbility.

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