You might think Britain and the wider world would be all ‘Olympic-ed out’ after an undeniably stellar summer of sport in London and the inevitable post-Olympic slump. You’d be wrong. The clamour for tickets for the Paralympic Games has been remarkable and last night saw a sell-out crowd attend the Olympic Stadium for the opening of this inspirational event.
We were extremely impressed with Danny Boyle’s oeuvre which provided the perfect start to the Olympic Games and also found ourselves greatly entertained by the closing ceremony. We were therefore curious as to whether the opening ceremony of this year’s Paralympic Games could reach the high benchmark set by its able-bodied counterpart.
In short, it truly did. Dubbed ‘Enlightenment’, the audio-visual extravaganza was an artistically rich, fantastical yet palpably gritty affair. There was music, there was Shakespeare, there was the usual pomp and ceremony associated with such ceremonials. However, there was also a huge slice of social commentary, which hammered a crucial message home without ever seeming condescending or militant.
Professor Stephen Hawking was an inspired central player, contributing at regular intervals via his now famous speech generator. The symbolism of Hawking’s participation was clear – the principle that even the most debilitating of conditions does not impede you being considered one of the greatest minds of your age underpinned this astounding spectacle.
As Sir Ian McKellen led radio actress and chronic juvenile arthritis sufferer, Nicola Miles-Wildin, around the stadium intermittently, using Shakespeare’s The Tempest as inspiration, one was struck not necessarily by Miles-Wildin’s dependence on her wheelchair but rather by her individual appearance, complete with two-tone cropped hair. Towards the end of the ceremony, McKellen urged Miles-Wildin to ‘break the glass ceiling’, which she did, using her walking stick. The potency of this act was overwhelming.
The parade of the athletes required more time than usual, for obvious reasons, but demonstrated the enthusiasm of the participants, as well as the range of ‘disabilities’ experienced by the athletes. Once again, the greatest cheer was reserved for the British team, who entered the stadium in their gold-collared tracksuits to much jubilation.
A particularly moving moment after the parade came as a group of Paralympic athletes, including Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, each with different impairments, made their way slowly towards a glowing sphere above the stadium. Further emotion ensued as a double leg amputee performed a stirring dance, accompanied by a soprano. An amputee band gave a genius rendition of Ian Dury’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, a tongue-in-cheek retort to anti-disability discrimination. Meanwhile, a giant reconstruction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wound its way around the stage. Who said the political has no place in the ceremonial?
The evening was rounded off to perfection by the legendary Beverley Knight, who brought the audience to their feet with a wonderfully evocative version of ‘I Am What I Am’. It’s an anthem to many, admittedly, there was a risk such a song choice might appear a tad flippant for such an event. In the end, we were just relieved that Paul McCartney did not make his now customary appearance. Knight was on superb vocal form with her stripped-down rendition of the classic ode to equality and as the LED screens in the seating beamed ‘I Am What I Am’ to the world, only the hardest of hearts can have failed to have skipped a beat.
Ian McKellen waving his arms and singing along to this final song on a stage the centrepiece of which was Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, spoke volumes about the inclusive intentions of this opening ceremony. Both McKellen (a veteran LGBT rights campaigner) and Hawking personify the notion that you can be at the pinnacle of your chosen field regardless of what others may perceive to be a barrier.
A perfect tone was struck by last night’s ceremony. Always thought-provoking yet, crucially, never patronising or pitying, this was an assertion of equality and diversity at a time when physical attacks on disabled Britons are rising. This was a rallying call to the world. As Hawking said: ‘We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand. Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.’