BEIJING (AP) – The Winter Paralympic Games opened in Beijing on Friday with Russian athletes heading home, Ukraine’s team fleeing a war zone to China and an impassioned call for peace.
Andrew Parsons, President of the International Paralympic Committee, expressed his horror at the fighting in Ukraine and called on world authorities to promote peace.
“Tonight I want, I need to start with a message of peace,” Parsons said in brief remarks to the athletes and spectators at the Bird’s Nest. “As a leader of an organization that is inclusion at its core, where diversity is celebrated and differences are embraced, I am appalled at what is happening in the world right now.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shortly after the Beijing Winter Olympics shook the world. And the world of sport is no exception.
The organizers of the Paralympics initially announced that Russians and Belarusians would be allowed to compete in Beijing, but changed the course a day before the opening and expelled athletes from both countries. They cited tensions in the Athletes Village.
The live broadcast of the opening on Chinese state television did not translate Parsons’ war condemnation and then muted the volume of his English remarks for a while. The Chinese government has refrained from criticizing the invasion and has spoken out against US, European and other sanctions imposed on Russia.
Ukrainian team member Maksym Yarovyi carried the country’s now well-known blue and yellow flag at the opening, leading a 20-strong delegation. All athletes and spectators wore face masks to protect against the coronavirus, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and other dignitaries.
“It’s a miracle that we made it to the Paralympics,” Ukrainian delegation leader Valerii Sushkevych said earlier.
He said it took team members in Ukraine four days to reach Beijing and that he slept on the floor of a bus during the last two days of the trip across Europe due to back problems.
“We overcame many obstacles along the way,” Sushkevych said. “Many members of our team had to flee while bombing raids and shells fell.”
Li Duan, a blind former long jumper for China who won gold in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, fumbled for the holder and then struggled a bit to insert the flame. The crowd cheered him on until he mounted it correctly in the center of a large white snowflake, which then rose to the top of the open-air stadium.
Around 564 athletes, 138 of them women, take part in the Paralympics. China has the largest team with 96 participants, followed by the United States with 65. The Paralympics include six sports: alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, hockey, snowboarding and curling.
“Much still needs to be done to achieve gender equality, but the significant increase in women’s participation in the Winter Games over the past 20 years shows that we’re on the right track,” said Parsons.
The 10-day Paralympics end on March 13th.