The hugely controversial 2020 Paralympic Games opened one year late in COVID-ridden Tokyo on Tuesday, with a dramatic firework display and a celebration of Japanese culture in a nearly empty stadium.
The opening ceremony began at 8 p.m. local time, with the Japanese flag being carried into the Olympic stadium in Tokyo, which is now the first city to host the Paralympics twice, having first been home to the event in 1964.
Prince William and Kate Middleton were among the celebrities, sports stars, and politicians who took to social media to congratulate and encourage participants in games that many observers doubted would ever take place.
While the Olympic and Paralympic games have been interpreted by many as a statement of resilience and an act of defiance against the coronavirus pandemic which delayed them, they have also been hugely controversial, and there were protests against the Paralympics outside the stadium on Tuesday. Protesters believe the organizers should have canceled the event to avoid spreading coronavirus.
The protesters’ fears have not been allayed by surging case numbers in the weeks since the Olympic Games opened in Tokyo on July 23. Channel News Asia reports that the overall epidemiological situation in Japan has “worsened dramatically in the weeks since the Olympic opening ceremony, with the country recording more than 25,000 daily infections in the past week.” One case has already been detected in the Paralympic village, the BBC said. Some 70 cases linked to Paralympics contractors and staff have also stoked anxieties.
Just 40 percent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated.
Several nations have said they will not be sending competitors to the Paralympics because of COVID fears, including North Korea, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
The Guardian reports that the two athletes who had qualified to represent Afghanistan, Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli, have been forced to withdraw as a result of the collapse of the Afghan government. The Guardian reports their flag formed part of the opening ceremony parade as a “mark of solidarity.” However, the games will also feature first-time Paralympians from Bhutan, Guyana, Maldives, Paraguay, and Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines.
The refugee team “opened the parade under the banner of the Paralympic symbols,” the Guardian added.
One of the refugee athletes, taekwondo star Parfait Hakizimana, fled civil war in his native Burundi in 2015. He lost his arm “at the age of eight, when he was shot during an attack in which his mother was killed,” the Guardian reports.