Largest Paralympics ever begin

Updated: September 17, 2004, 5:56 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- More than 3,800 disabled athletes gathered Friday for the opening ceremony of the largest Paralympics in the games' 44-year history.

The three-hour show featured fireworks shooting from the stadium roof, deaf performers, children in capes, light projections and a giant styrofoam tree in the middle of the sold-out Olympic stadium as Athens tried to carry over the party spirit from the Aug. 13-29 Olympics.

The International Paralympic Committee said 3,846 athletes from 136 countries will compete in 19 sports over 11 days. During the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, 123 nations participated. In Athens, organizers waived entry fees for all athletes and team officials.

Organizers built a 85-foot-tall tree, weighing 35 tons, to symbolize life. A ceremony guide pointed out that in ancient times the "sick used to lie down under plane trees and hope for a cure simply by touching this incarnation of strength and longevity."

The show featured a troupe of sign language interpreters, plus Greek singers Vicky Leandros and Marios Frangoulis and about 3,000 volunteer performers. The names of countries marching in the parade of nations were announced in English and Greek, and presented in sign language.

"The real heroes of this evening are the athletes. We are here to celebrate you and your sport, but there is more to it than that," said International Paralympic Committee president Phil Craven. "You are the beacon of inspiration for millions of people around the world."

Athens is not easily accessible for people with disabilities, and city residents have been criticized for not respecting civic guidelines for people with disabilities.

"Athens has become a more accessible city. After you leave, Athens will remain a better city for all of its citizens and we thank you for showing us the way," said chief 2004 organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki.

Games for athletes with disabilities were first organized in Rome in 1960. The competitions later adopted the name Paralympics.

The Paralympic anti-doping chief said Friday that about 700 unannounced doping tests will be performed throughout the games -- with sports such as powerlifting, cycling and track and field under particular scrutiny.

"We test the medalists, but because of the number of tests ... what we do is weighted random tests," said Jose Antonio Pascual, head of the International Paralympic Committee's anti-doping subcommittee.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press