This week saw the opening of the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio. Founded in 1960, the Paralympic games are an international competition for athletes with some form of disability. Many of the sports featured in the Paralympics are the same as those found in the Olympic games, however there are some different sports that highlight the ability of athletes to persevere in the face of adversity, for example chair basketball, sitting volleyball and chair rugby.
The games began with an opening ceremony held at the iconic Maracana stadium. Some aspects of opening ceremonies are seemingly obligatory regardless whether they open the Paralympic games or the Olympic games. For example, every ceremony features a cultural display by the host city/country, every ceremony features a parade of nations in which the athletes are introduced to the world, and every ceremony is capped off by the arrival of the torch and the lighting of the flame.
However, the spirit of the Paralympic opening ceremony was in many ways far deeper than other ceremonies. The theme for the ceremony was “everyone has a heart,” meaning that everyone, regardless of ability, is joined by the same humanity. This focus on humanity was highlighted throughout the ceremony in the celebration of abilities possessed by the athletes even in the face of disabilities and difficult circumstances, as well as the essential link between those with disabilities and society as a whole.
In the first segment of the ceremony, former Paralympian Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee, was seen in a video traveling from his home to Rio, where he took in the sights of the city and of Brazil before looking out at the city from the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. Craven undertook his travels in a wheelchair and without obstacles or self-consciousness while interacting freely with his fellow travelers and with Brazilians. When the video finished, Craven appeared at the entrance to the Maracana and made his way to the center of the ceremonies. This segment emphasized the sense of openness regarding abilities and disabilities that permeated the ceremony – by traveling and experiencing Brazil as any other tourist Craven emphasized his own abilities and the pride he has in them. Craven also represented the pride of Paralympians as athletes, competitors, and ambassadors of their sports, countering the potential for negative views of the disabled generally and disabled athletes in particular.
Pride in one’s abilities and openness regarding disabilities was evidenced by Aaron“Wheelz” Fotheringham, an extreme wheelchair athlete, who performed aerial jumps early in the ceremony. Similarly, one of the Brazilian cultural montages featured a scene on a beach crowded by those who had disabilities and those who did not. Rather than serve as a polarizing space, the beach became a site of interaction and building of relationships as those needing assistance received it in a dignified manner from other beach goers. While this might be overly optimistic, the portrayal of the beach scene was important because it emphasized the idea of pride in one’s abilities and of those with disabilities as proud and equal members of society. There was no attempt for these performers to hide their disabilities or stay in the background of life.
Pride was also evident in the athletes who participated in the parade of nations portion of the ceremony. Whether part of a national delegation of one or over one hundred, the athletes put their full abilities on display for the world. Through their athletic talents and their dedication to sports, these athletes demonstrated the perseverance that the organizers of the games highlighted as a sub-theme for the games overall.
As part of the closing segment of the ceremony, Amy Purdy, an American snowboarder, performed an evocative samba dance on running blades alongside a piece of robotic machinery that danced with her. The dance was highly symbolic of the relationship between athlete and machine, demonstrating how each can come together in order to allow the athlete to give voice to her full abilities. Rather than shying away from the need to have such a relationship, the dance embraced this symbiotic and intimate relationship for all to see and celebrate.
Critics are often eager to point out that the opening ceremony of any international game is often more optimistic than realistic. However, the pride and the perseverance that permeated the 2016 Paralympic opening ceremony are more than just for show. The celebration of the abilities of Paralympic athletes was a statement of empowerment for the international community of Paralympians and demonstrated the positive nature of citizenship of sport that has been discussed in previous Jurisculture posts. Beyond the Paralympic community, the opening ceremony served as a statement for the larger global community that those with disabilities are far more than the parameters of their disabilities, and instead form a vibrant community with diverse abilities.