Published: March 8, 2014 (Issue # 1800)
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the 11th Paralympic Winter Games open Friday at a grandiose opening ceremony in Sochi.
The Games, the first to be held in Russia, will feature 547 athletes from 45 countries across nine days of competition on the Black Sea coast and in the Caucasus Mountains.
“I declare open the Winter Paralympic Games 2014, Sochi,” Putin said.
In a statement issued by organizers, Putin added: “Sochi 2014 will gather a record number of athletes representing the Paralympic movement.”
“And we will do everything we can to make every one of them feel at home in Russia, among close friends, so that they can show their skills, athletic character and conquer new heights.”
In a lavish ceremony themed around the concepts of unity and inclusiveness, disabled performers played prominent roles as singers and dancers.
Oscar-winning animator Alexander Petrov provided regular hand-drawn interludes featuring the firebird, a magical creature from Russian fairytale, while another Oscar laureate, Mexico’s Eugenio Caballero, oversaw set design.
During the parade of athletes from the competing nations, only a single flag-bearer represented the Ukrainian team, which said earlier in the day that it would not stage a boycott over unrest in its home country.
“Together you are the catalysts for change. You have the ability to change perceptions and alter attitudes like no other,” International Paralympic Committee president Philip Craven told athletes.
“You will leave as role models, heroes, pioneers and, most of all, proud Paralympians.”
The ceremony ended with a vast model icebreaker cruising through the Fisht Olympic Stadium, symbolising the breaking down of barriers at the Paralympics.
The Paralympic cauldron in the park outside the stadium was lit by two Russian Paralympic icons, two-time gold medal-winning swimmer Olesya Vladykina and Sergei Shilov, a six-time gold medalist in cross-country skiing.
The Paralympics run through March 16 and feature 72 medal events in five sports, the highest number for any Winter Paralympics to date.
To date, 283,000 tickets have been sold for the Sochi Paralympics, organizers said earlier in the day. That is about 50,000 more than the Winter Games record set by Vancouver in 2010.