Philip Barker

It was to be expected that the Paralympic Opening Ceremony would be superbly executed not least because it was masterminded by Zhang Yimou, the supremo behind Beijing's Olympic extravaganzas in 2008 and last month.

The official speeches are normally diplomatic to a fault but on this occasion, they electrified proceedings.

International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons gave full vent to his emotions with a plea for peace that was at once angry yet undeniably heartfelt.

"As the leader of an organisation with inclusion at its core, where diversity is celebrated and differences embraced, I am horrified at what is taking place in the world right now," Parsons told those in the Bird's Nest Stadium and the worldwide audience. 

"The Olympic Truce for peace during the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a UN Resolution which must be observed and not violated," he added.

It was a Presidential address which will probably attract greater attention than any previously made at a Paralympic Games.

The shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been a looming presence over the build-up to these Games.

Parsons did not mention this by name but his target seemed clear to all.

The Ceremony had many similarities to that which had taken place a month ago for the Winter Olympics but there were also some subtle differences.

The teams made their appearance through the same gate in the Stadium but this time, the national flag was displayed on the floor of the Stadium.

After the frenzy which attended Bing Dwen Dwen, panda mascot of the Winter Olympics, it was now Shuey Rhon Rhon’s chance to shine.

Based on a traditional Chinese lantern, there were in fact four mascots, ready to welcome the teams from 46 nations, including of course Ukraine.

They came in according to Chinese characters which meant that the Ukrainians followed Denmark.

There were two exceptions to the order, Italy were the penultimate team, wearing rather striking capes which featured their national tricolour flag.

This was to recognise the fact that Milan Cortina will host the Games in 2026.

As at the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the host nation were last to enter the stadium. 

They came in to the very same popular Chinese patriotic song "Hymn to the Motherland."

The Birds Nest thus became the first stadium to stage both a Summer and Winter Paralympic Opening Ceremony and as in 2008, the cast was a combination of those with impairments and able-bodied performers.

The theme of coming together had been highlighted then with an acrobat performing as a sunbird guiding a blind singer Yang Haitao as he performed a song called "Paradise."

Fourteen years ago, a terrible earthquake had struck Sichuan and 11-year-old ballet student Li Yue lost a leg in the disaster.

Her performance to Ravel’s Bolero proved one of the highlights of the entire Ceremony.

2026 host nation Italy wore original capes for the Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
2026 host nation Italy wore original capes for the Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

It was, said Chinese news agency Xinhua, "not a symbol of the country's painful memory but the symbol of those in the quake-stricken province who never gave up their dream."

The cooperation of performers was also highlighted at today's event.

A choir of visually impaired singers sang the Chinese national anthem.

A wind ensemble, made up of 47 visually impaired musicians played the Paralympic anthem Hymn to the Future which accompanied the arrival of the IPC flag.

This had been carried by Paralympic badminton gold medallist Liu Yutong, javelin champion Yao Juan, six-times swimming gold medallist Zhang Li, Para fencing champions Sun Gang and Li Hao, Xue Juan double table tennis gold medallist in both Rio and Tokyo, and officials Chen Qi, coach to the silver medal-winning Chinese wheelchair basketball team and goalball coach Hao Guohua.

As the IPC flag was raised, the message "Change Starts with Sport" flashed on the stage.

A short but significant element unique to the Paralympics is a campaign called "We the 15."

This was first seen last year in Tokyo and is designed to highlight 15 per cent of the world’s population which lives with some kind of disability.

The campaign aims to "build greater knowledge of the barriers and discrimination persons with disabilities face on a daily basis at all levels of society," and hopes that "by doing so we will break down these barriers."

The United Nations has calculated that around a billion people are affected in some way.

Children touched palms to exchange the "Agitos", the distinct IPC emblem.

Alpine skier Zhang Menqiu and Para curler Chen Jianxin took the Paralympic Oath of fair play on behalf of the athletes.

They were joined by ice hockey referee Zhang Liheng and Yue Quinshuang from wheelchair curling to represent the coaches.

China were the final nation to enter the Bird's Nest Stadium ©Getty Images
China were the final nation to enter the Bird's Nest Stadium ©Getty Images

Then came a "Winter Paralympic waltz" with impaired and able-bodied dancers combining on stage as the finale depicted a smiling face.

As in 2008, the lighting of the Flame provided the climax to the Ceremony.

Fourteen years ago, triple Paralympic high jump gold medallist Hou Bin was hoisted into the air to light the Cauldron high above the Birds Nest.

"To watch him climb a rope from the stadium floor to the roof, with a broken finger rubbing on the rope, and with a flame on his chair, was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen," IPC President Sir Philip Craven said at the time.

Hou had carried a Beijing 2022 Torch this week when the Relay began its domestic journey from the Temple of Heaven.

As at the 2008 Games, China chose to recognise eight Paralympians when the journey of the Flame came to its conclusion in the Stadium.

The roll call of champions included alpine skier Liu Sintong,sprinter Wen Xiaoyan who took her Paralympic haul to five gold medals with three in Tokyo last year.

Also included were double swimming gold medallist Ma Jia, wheelchair basketball silver medallist Zhang Xuemei, four time athletics gold medallist Liu Cuiqing shooting gold medallist Dong Chao and 2012 sitting volleyball champion Tang Xuemei.

They all took the Flame before it passed to quadruple triple jump gold medallist Li Duan.

For Li it was an emotional return to the stadium where he set a world record in 2008.

Li who lost his sight after an explosion in 1996, carefully placed the Torch in the snowflake receptacle similar to that used at the Olympics last month.

The "Micro" Flame will burn for the duration until a week on Sunday night when the Games come to a close.

Few would have predicted that its fragility would be such a metaphor for the wider world events which have given the Games such a threatening backdrop.