London: The Paralympic cauldron was lit in London on Wednesday to burn for 11 days of sport at the biggest and most high-profile Games that organisers hope will transform ideas about disability the world over.
On Thursday, a record 4,200 athletes, including an unprecedented number of women, from 165 countries competed for 503 medals in 20 sports in front of a near-sell-out crowd for the first time in the Games’ 52-year history.
Shooters Abdullah Al Aryani and Obaid Al Dahmani will commence the UAE’s campaign at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, which has got under way at the Olympic Park in London. Al Aryani will take part in the qualifying round of the men’s R1-10m air rifle standing from noon UAE time today, while Al Dahmani’s qualifying round in the same category will be from 3.30pm today.
Both UAE shooters’ next challenges will be tomorrow (Saturday) when they participate in the mixed R3-10m air rifle prone qualifiers
The UAE will also start their track-and-field activities at the London Paralympics today (Friday), with Eisa Al Jahwari first in action in the men’s discus throw final in the F57/58 category from 10pm UAE.
After that, Mohammad Wahdani will be participating in the men’s 5,000m heats in the T54 category at 10.15pm UAE time.
The UAE has sent a squad of 15 athletes to participate in the London Paralympic Games. Ten of these will be competing in track and field, while the other five include a wheelchair racer and two each in shooting and powerlifting respectively.
The showpiece athletics programme gets under way on Friday with the spotlight on South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, who is seeking to defend his T44 100m, 200m and 400m titles from Beijing four years ago.
Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner” because he runs on carbon fibre blades, made history this month by becoming the first double-amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics 400m and 4x400m relay final.
A total of 166 countries had been due to take part but the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said Malawi’s team had not travelled to London for what would have been the country’s first Paralympics.
Britain is considered the “spiritual home” of the Games, as the first recognised sports events for athletes with disabilities was held in Stoke Mandeville, southern England, in 1948, 12 years before the first Paralympics.
The flame arrived in spectacular fashion, brought down a zip wire from the 115-metre high observation tower overlooking the Olympic Stadium in east London by a British soldier wounded on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Royal Marine commando Joe Townsend, who lost both legs when he stepped on a homemade bomb, is now an aspiring Paralympic triathlete who hopes to compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 when the sport makes its debut.
He handed the torch to Britain’s five-a-side football team captain Dave Clarke, who passed it to Margaret Maughan, Britain’s first Paralympic gold medallist at the inaugural Paralympics in Rome in 1960.
She then lit the petals of the cauldron inscribed with the names of all participating countries, triggering a firework display in the skies overhead.
Queen Elizabeth II earlier officially opened the Games at the showpiece ceremony involving more than 3,000 volunteer and professional performers, many of them with a disability, combining music, dance and aerial acrobatics.
London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe said hoped the Games “would be a landmark for people with a disability everywhere, a landmark in the progress of mankind towards the light, towards seeing immense capability and possibility”.
The show began with a fly-past over the stadium by a former serviceman who was helped by a charity that trains disabled pilots and a rare public appearance by Britain’s most-famous living scientist Stephen Hawking.
The theoretical physicist, author of A Brief History of Time who has motor neuron disease and has been paralysed most of his life, was described by organisers as “the most famous disabled person anywhere on the planet”.
He guided a central character on a journey of discovery in a story inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, taking in the Big Bang theory on the creation of the universe about which he has written extensively, to the 18th century “Enlightment” period and scientific discoveries of the modern era.
The 70-year-old said through a voice synthesiser: “The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world.
“We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create.
“This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics. However difficult life may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at.”