The London 2012 Paralympic Games opened tonight in a dramatic and moving ceremony that had starring roles for the Queen and Professor Stephen Hawking.
A packed Olympic Stadium and millions more across the world watched as the “spectacular and deeply human” opening ceremony unfolded before double amputee Afghan war veteran Joe Townsend flew in on a zip wire to light the flame.
Six Paralympians and former competitors – including Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson – were flown into the stadium in gold wheelchairs.
Accompanying the athletics star were fellow Paralympians Robert Barrett, Kay Forshaw, Tony Griffin, Ian Rose and Marc Woods.
The ceremony heralded the start of 11 days of elite sporting action featuring athletes from across the world and before sell-out crowds who have made this the most successful Paralympic Games in history.
Prof Hawking and actor Sir Ian McKellen played prominent roles in the opening ceremony, which also featured a host of deaf and disabled artists, local children and performers newly-trained in circus skills.
They were being officially opened by the Queen, who said in a statement released in advance: “It is with tremendous pride that the people of London and the United Kingdom welcome the world to the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“The Games are returning to the country where they first began, more than 60 years ago.
“We look forward to celebrating the uplifting spirit which distinguishes the Paralympic Games from other events, drawing on Britain’s unique sporting heritage.”
Prof Hawking said: “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.
“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”
Earlier, the Paralympic Flame was greeted by large crowds as it made its way past some of the most famous landmarks in the capital.
Five torchbearers arrived at the zebra crossing outside Abbey Road recording studios to recreate the pose made famous by The Beatles.
The torch also visited London Zoo, Regent Street, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall on its journey to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.
Demand for tickets to the Games is still high and 10,000 will be put on sale each day during the event.
London 2012 chief executive Paul Deighton said: “We’ve tried to get as many people in as we reasonably can. This is a wonderful illustration of how the British public have said we love the Paralympics and want to be part of it.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said of the Games: “They will create new role models, they will change attitudes to disability and they will have a positive impact on society.”
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “For many Brits, this will be the first time they have seen the Paralympic Games at all. It will be a very big moment to really change perceptions and that will be something to be proud of.”
Paralympic athletes will compete for 503 gold medals across 20 sports during the London Games, with competitions starting tomorrow.