Stephen Hawking at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 30: Stephen Hawking played a starring role in last night’s Paralympics opening ceremony in London in which Britain’s most-known physicist set out to change attitudes in countries where disability is treated almost like a disease.
The professor, now 70 but who was stricken with motor neurone disease at 21, conveyed a message to the world in his distinctive electronic voice: “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”
He urged people: “Be curious.”
Many of the 4,200 athletes from 164 countries, who began 11 days of competitive sports today, walked round the stadium last night, often painfully slowly, in front of 62,000 wildly cheering spectators.
Among them were half a dozen members of the Indian delegation, a couple of them in wheelchairs.
As the Indian delegation went past, some in the crowd were apparently heard to shout “Shame!” — said to be a comment on the small size of the country’s representation.
The Indian delegation has H.N. Girisha, Jagseer Singh, Jaideep, Narender and Amit Kumar (all athletics); Farman Basha, Rajinder Singh Rahelu and Sachin Chaudhary (power lifting); Naresh Kumar Sharma (shooting) and Sharath M. Gayakwad (swimming).
Hawking began, literally, with a “Big Bang”, signifying the origin of the universe, which he has done so much to explain. “Ever since the dawn of civilisation, people have craved an understanding of the underlying order of the world,” he said. “Why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
“We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand,” Hawking went on. “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.”
Hawking added: “The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world. We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics.”
Tribute was paid to Isaac Newton and his theory of gravitation. All entering the stadium were given a free apple and right on cue — “five, four, three, two, one” — instructed to take a bite at the same time.
Hawking’s words were backed up from a wheelchair by those of Philip Craven, a former Paralympics basketball player himself and now president of the International Paralympic Committee. Addressing the assembled athletes, he said: “Tonight is the start of something extremely special.... You not only have the abilities to win medals in London, but have the abilities to change the world.”
The procession of wheelchairs told their own story. Those from rich countries had state-of-the-art wheelchairs and hence were immediately at an advantage in sports such as wheelchair volleyball and tennis. Competitors from poorer countries could only hope to have basic equipment if they were lucky.
While many of the athletes were pushed in their wheelchairs by their escorts or helpers, others walked slowly on crutches. Oscar Pistorius, who competed in the Olympics a fortnight ago and carried the South African flag last night, is said to be the “poster boy of the Paralympics” as “the fastest man with no legs”.
Each of the athletes is said to have a back story though many now ask to be judged purely on their sporting prowess. However, the British are focusing on athletes such as Martine Wright, a sitting volleyball player. A day after London had won the right to stage the 2012 Games on July 6, 2005, in Singapore, she had both her legs blown off because one of the suicide bombers sat next to her on the Underground train at Aldgate. She now feels it was her destiny to be part of the British Paralympics team. “I feel so lucky to be alive,” said Martine.
The theme of last night’s opening ceremony — every bit as impressive as the Danny Boyle-masterminded Olympic spectacular of July 27 and in some ways more moving — was “enlightenment”.
The paralympic flame entered the stadium in dramatic fashion, carried by Royal Marine Joe Townsend who lost both legs when he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan. He slid down a zip wire which had one end tied to the top of the Anish Kapoor-designed sculpture 115 metres above the ground. Just before the formal speeches, Deepa Shastri, a hearing-impaired actress, did the sign language to Spirit in Motion sung by soprano Denise Leigh.
At dawn yesterday, the paralympic flame included a stop at the Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north-west London, on what was perhaps the most distinctive “photo op” of its journey across Britain.