LONDON (AFP) –
A spectacular opening ceremony starring acclaimed British scientist Stephen Hawking was set to ring in the biggest ever Paralympic Games on Wednesday, aiming to transform ideas about disability and champion the human spirit.
Hawking, author of the best-selling “A Brief History of Time” and described by organisers as “the most famous disabled person anywhere in the world”, will make a rare public appearance to narrate parts of the ceremony at the Olympic Stadium.
Organisers said Hawking, who has motor neurone disease and has been paralysed for most of his life, would guide a central character on a journey of discovery in a story inspired by William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.
“What came through to us was the humanity and humour of Professor Hawking,” said Bradley Hemmings, the ceremony’s co-artistic director.
“He’s a fun guy.”
Hawking, who speaks using a voice synthesiser, will deliver a series of messages about “the origins of the universe and how humanity has tried to understand how everything is ordered,” Hemming’s co-director Jenny Sealey said.
The ceremony, involving 3,000 performers, many of them with disabilities, brings the curtain up on the highest-profile Paralympic Games in the event’s 52-year history.
South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, who made became the first double-amputee to run in the Olympics this month, will be among the biggest stars of the 11-day competition for disabled athletes.
Queen Elizabeth II will officially open the Games at the ceremony, which will be also watched by her grandson Prince William and his wife Catherine, an 80,000-strong crowd, and a television audience of millions around the world.
The Paralympic torch — lit at Stoke Mandeville, the spiritual home of the Games, on Tuesday evening — made its way to the stadium past London’s most famous landmarks, including Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.
A record 4,200 Paralympic athletes from 165 countries, including for the first time reclusive North Korea, will perform in 20 sports.
There are an unprecedented 2.5 million tickets — which are expected to sell out for the first time — and the International Paralympic Committee predicts that more than four billion people will watch the Games on television.
Organisers believe much of the interest comes after a successful Olympics for British athletes, which saw the host nation finish third in the overall medal table behind the United States and China.
Britain is considered the “spiritual home” of the Paralympics, as the first recognised sports events for athletes with disabilities was held in the southern English village of Stoke Mandeville in 1948.
As the flame was lit in the village on Tuesday, London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe said the Paralympics owed a huge debt to Ludwig Guttmann, the German-Jewish neurologist at Stoke Mandeville hospital who set up the first wheelchair sports tournament there.
“It was that work, that drive and that passion, that created a games that are now the second-largest sporting event in the world,” Coe said of Guttmann, who died in 1980.
Shooting is set to provide the first gold of the Games on Thursday in the women’s 10m standing air rifle.
Medals are also up for grabs in the velodrome with the finals of the men and women’s individual pursuit, in four weight categories in judo at the ExCel Arena and at the Aquatics Centre, where 15 swimming finals are to be held.
The showpiece athletics programme gets under way on Friday with the spotlight on Pistorius, who is seeking to defend his 100m, 200m and 400m titles from Beijing four years ago.
But Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner” because he runs on carbon fibre blades, has played down expectations of repeating the treble, with world-record holder Jonnie Peacock and world champion Jerome Singleton likely to feature in the 100m final.
“It’s important to note that I haven’t run a 100m personal best in five years,” Pistorius told a press conference, adding that he would “be happy” with a medal of any colour in the blue riband sprint.