Rio de Janeiro opened the Paralympic Games on Wednesday with samba, parading wheelchairs, giant balloons – and loud booing of Brazil’s president – at a sold-out Maracana stadium.
The extraordinary sight of US Paralympian Aaron Wheelz jumping in his wheelchair from a 55 feet (17 meters) ramp got the crowd on its feet. Then the joyous rhythms of samba singers and a carnivalesque reproduction of a Rio beach scene got them dancing.
But Brazil’s tensions also flared with thousands in the crowd chanting “Out with Temer!” as newly sworn in President Michel Temer appeared at the ceremony just days after taking over from bitter rival Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached.
Temer’s hurried declaration of “I declare the Games open” met a roar of boos, while booing forced Brazilian Olympics boss Carlos Nuzman to pause his speech after he mentioned “thanks to the federal, state and municipal governments.”
For Rio, the Paralympics, coming right after a vibrant but sometimes tricky Olympics, are one more challenge in a period of deep recession and political instability.
But Nuzman said “Brazilians never give up,” then he told the athletes: “You are superhumans.”
Blind, missing limbs, or partially paralyzed, more than 4,300 of the world’s toughest and most competitive disabled paraded ahead of 11 days of contests. Some pushed their own wheelchairs, others were pushed, while others limped.
When the Brazilian team came out in flower-patterned jackets, led by a storming contingent of athletes in wheelchairs, the legendary football stadium roared in delirium.
However, controversy hung over the now show by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach – the first absence of an IOC chief since the 1984 Summer Games.
Bach is due at a mourning ceremony in Berlin for the late West German president Walter Scheel.
However, there have been suggestions that the no-show has to do with divisions over the Paralympic committee’s outright ban on Russian athletes after allegations of a state-sanctioned doping program and the IOC’s relatively softer line.
There were also reports in Globo and other Brazilian media outlets that Bach is wanted for questioning by local police investigating an illegal ticket selling ring allegedly involving a senior Irish Olympic official. Rio police were to give a press conference on the matter Thursday.
“Whether there’s anything else – I don’t know if there’s anything else,” International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven said of Bach’s decision.
Russian para-athletes, who finished second behind China in the London 2012 medals table, were barred last month following a World Anti-Doping Agency report which alleged a vast state-sponsored doping program.
Separately, UK Athletics will review classifications after the Games, according to BBC News, following concerns that athletes were being mismatched to create an unfair advantage.
Caught in political and economic crises, Rio 2016 organizers have skimped as far as they can on food, transport and accommodation.
The run-up to the Games was also overshadowed by slow ticket sales. This follows concerns about half-empty stadiums at many of the Olympics events.
But organizers have reported a dramatic turnaround in the last few days.
“Two weeks ago we were at 200,000” tickets sold, Craven said. Now sales have reached 1.6 million and are “growing every day.”
“We’ll soon be over the 1.7 million mark. Our aim is to sell around 2.4 million,” he said.
Six countries are sending athletes for the very first time, and Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein, who lost a leg in an explosion in his nation’s civil war, and Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour make up a two-strong refugee team.
The record of 41 career gold medals won by blind American swimmer Trischa Zorn between 1980 and 2004 looks unbeatable, but the Paralympics will inevitably produce new stars.
Iran’s 28-year-old powerlifter Siamand Rahman, disabled since birth, is aiming to become the first Paralympian to bench press 300kg. Others to watch include Britain’s wheelchair racer David Weir and China’s blind sprinter Liu Cuiqing.
China will have its biggest ever team of 308 athletes in Rio looking to beat their 95 gold medals from London when they topped the table for the third straight Paralympics.
They have swimmer Xu Qing competing in his fourth and possibly last Games, seeking to add to his seven gold medals.