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Paralympics open with safety concerns amid COVID surge

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Paralympics open with safety concerns amid COVID surge The Tokyo Paralympics opened Tuesday night following a one-year postponement, with questions unanswered over whether it is safe to hold the world’s largest event for athletes with disabilities during a public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tokyo is the first city to host the Summer Paralympics twice, having staged the 1964 edition. But this time, the games will be held under conditions that nobody had imagined before the virus took hold, with safety measures preventing regular spectators from attending, as was the case during the Olympics.

A record 4,403 athletes from 161 countries and regions, as well as a small refugee team, will take center stage through Sept. 5, in what the International Paralympic Committee said is a “remarkable achievement” given the difficulties posed by the global health crisis.

The Paralympics will consist of 539 medal events across 22 sports. Taekwondo and badminton have been added to the program for the first time, while other sports include swimming, athletics, boccia and wheelchair tennis.

“I declare open the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games,” Japanese Emperor Naruhito said at the National Stadium, with the 68,000-capacity main venue a sea of empty seats because only VIPs were allowed to attend as a precaution against the spread of the virus.

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Taking place on a stage resembling an airport, the opening ceremony saw mask-wearing athletes waving at the camera as they entered in the order of the Japanese alphabet, with the refugee team leading the way.

Since athletes from Afghanistan could not travel to Tokyo after the Taliban retook control of the country earlier this month, the country’s flag was carried by a volunteer to represent “solidarity” with those in the Central Asian nation.

Held under the concept of “We Have Wings,” the ceremony told a story about a plane with one wing that dreamed of taking flight, with a dance-like performance by 13-year-old Yui Wago, who uses a wheelchair and has upper and lower limb disorder.

Organizers hope the Tokyo Paralympics will contribute to building a more inclusive society that embraces people’s differences.

However, as with the Olympic opening ceremony a month earlier, a number of protesters gathered outside the stadium, chanting slogans such as “Stop the Paralympics.” Health experts and officials have begun labeling the current COVID-19 situation in Japan as at a “disaster level.”

Three Japanese athletes in wheelchairs — boccia player Shunsuke Uchida, powerlifter Karin Morisaki and wheelchair tennis player Yui Kamiji — carried the Paralympic flame on the final leg of the torch relay before igniting the sphere-shaped cauldron, fueled by hydrogen and using the sun as a motif, inside the stadium.

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