An eerie quiet hung over London’s Olympic Park for most of yesterday.
Volunteers idled about in their purple uniforms, like unwanted extras from a Barney cartoon, as a seemingly deserted East End took shelter from the incessant rain that threatened to dampen the second leg of this city’s summer of sporting extravagance.
Then the sun came out and the people followed suit.
Rush hour came and went and the dribble swelled into a flood.
As was the case earlier this month, the Irish were front and centre, with Tricolours and leprechaun hats sprinkled liberally among the mass of Olympic spectators.
That these are no ordinary Games was apparent long before Stephen Hawking’s unmistakable voice began to narrate the opening ceremony, one that aped the eccentricity of Danny Boyle’s last month, with hundreds of umbrellas and the world’s biggest apple crunch.
Wheelchairs are the most obvious, and iconic, visible reminder of what separates the Paralympics from other such events, but there were also competitors, coaches, volunteers, journalists, and members of the general public present here with a myriad of disabilities.
In its scale, if not its spirit, the opening ceremony was a long way from the Paralympics’ simple origins in 1948 when Dr Ludwig Guttman’s idea for a sporting contest for a handful of injured war veterans was greeted with scepticism by his peers at the rehabilitation centre at Stoke Mandeville.
It seemed somewhat fitting, then, that the 49-strong Irish team should include among its ranks one Sean Baldwin, a member of the Defence Forces who lost a leg in a traffic accident while on UN duties in Liberia in 2003.
This is Baldwin’s first Paralympics. John Twomey, from Ballinhassig in Cork, will clock in for his tenth tomorrow when he accompanies Anthony Hegarty and Ian Costelloe into the waters around Portland in their three-person keelboat.
The Irish have been at every Paralympics since the event went international in 1960 and, as was the case with the Olympics, the theory that this will be our “home” Games was borne out by the roar that greeted cyclist Cathal Miller as he carried the flag into the stadium last night.
As well as Stephen Hawking, actor Ian McKellen also played a prominent role in last night’s opening ceremony, which featured a host of deaf and disabled artists, local children, and performers newly-trained in circus skills.
Paralympic athletes will compete for 503 gold medals across 20 sports during the Games, with competitions starting today.
London 2012 is set to be the most watched Paralympics ever, with the 2.5m tickets to the competitions expected to be sold out and millions more people watching worldwide.
Demand for the tickets means 10,000 will be put on sale each day during the event.
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