The Paralympics Opening Ceremony: Oh Braver, Newer World!

If the Olympics Opening Ceremony was edgy, the Paralympics Opening Ceremony traveled to the edge and beyond, encouraging the able-bodied among us to look, really look, at people with disabilities and, in so doing, to acknowledge our own.

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Matt Dunham / AP

Margaret Maughan, Britain's first Paralympic gold medalist, lights the Paralympic flame during the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Paralympics in London, Aug. 29, 2012.

The Olympics Opening Ceremony confronted us with a vision of the United Kingdom that divided audiences. (Tory backbencher Aidan Burley tweeted that Danny Boyle’s show was “multicultural crap” and “the most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen.” Britain’s Immigration Minister Damian Green responded by urging fellow Conservatives to pass the “Danny Boyle test and cheer the numerous virtues of Britain in 2012,” including, presumably, universal healthcare, celebrated in the dance routine that provoked Burley’s tweet.) But if Boyle’s show was edgy, Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, the co-directors of the Paralympics Opening Ceremony, traveled to the edge and beyond, confronting us not just with a vision of the U.K., but the whole world, and setting audiences a much tougher test than Boyle’s. Their show encouraged the able-bodied among us to look, really look, at people with disabilities and, in so doing, to acknowledge our own.

We are frequently deaf to prejudices against people with physical or mental impairments. We routinely turn a blind eye to the architecture of modern life that throws unnecessary steps in the path of wheelchairs and places handles and shelving out of reach. Admonished from an early age that it’s rude to stare, we learn instead to do something far more discourteous: to ignore. The Paralympics is set to provide a dramatic corrective to that tendency, and its opening night couldn’t have been more attention-grabbing.

(MORE: Highlights from the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremonies)

Nor could it have been more fun—even if the parade of paralympians took almost an hour longer than planned. The athletes’ joy and pride proved infectious, and some of the stories that led them to the Olympic Stadium were, to deploy a word that’s in danger of wearing out from intensive usage over 11 days of competition, inspirational. As Maxine Wiltshire, who lost both legs in a wave of bombings that hit London on 7 July 2005, the day after the city secured the right to host the Games, prepared to enter the stadium as a member of Britain’s sitting volleyball squad, she spoke to Clare Balding, co-hosting the Paralympics for commercial broadcaster Channel 4 after her star turn for the BBC at the Olympics. Fate had brought her to the moment, said Wright, who rather than bemoaning the bad luck that placed her next to a suicide bomber, considers herself lucky to have survived. “Fate is what happens to you, destiny is what you do with it,” replied Balding.

In Channel 4’s commentary box, the broadcaster’s storied news anchor Jon Snow provided a wider, geopolitical context to an event in which many competitors have lost limbs to war and which owes its origins to a pioneering doctor working to rehabilitate servicemen wounded in World War II through sport. As Snow gave learned, and often sober, disquisitions on the countries represented at the Games, a BBC producer called Brendan Miller imagined, on Twitter, how Snow might commentate a soccer match: “There’s Fabregas. He’s from Spain. They’ve got 48% unemployment for under 25s…” Yet, as NBC’s coverage of Boyle’s show demonstrated, better to know too much, rather than too little.

And the commentators knew when to shut up and let others do the talking; and what excellent guides there were during the spectacular sequences of music, movement and drama that bracketed the parade. The Tempest, Shakespeare’s most melancholic comedy, provided themes and a structure for this ceremony, as it had done for Boyle’s and for the Olympics closing show too. Ian McKellen, familiar to international movie audiences as Gandalf and to his compatriots as a passionate campaigner on gay rights and  other equality issues, bestrode the stage as Prospero, shepherding young Miranda, played by Nicola Miles-Wildin, an actor with juvenile chronic arthritis. “How beauteous mankind is,” she exclaimed, looking up at an aerial ballet performed by dancers in wheelchairs and without limbs. “Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.”

(MORE: 20 Paralympic Athletes to Watch at London 2012)

Her journey of enlightenment was narrated by the physicist Stephen Hawking, brilliant and so physically debilitated by almost half a century of motor neurone disease that he appears eerily close to becoming the disembodied brain of sci fi fantasies. As such, he seemed, at first, a startling choice for a celebration of sporting achievement. Yet, of course, he is the perfect exponent both of the possibilities of mind over matter—the triumph of the will—and the remorseless supremacy of physical principles.

In a hilarious, moving and, yes, inspiring finale to Miranda’s travels, Prospero urged her to her “greatest adventure—be who you are and help to change the world.” This was the signal for dance duo Orbital, accompanied by members of the fabulous Graeae theater company and using samples of Hawking’s electronic voice, to launch into a ferocious cover version of Spasticus Autisticus, the best, nastiest, funniest song about disability to ever set feet and prosthetics tapping. Ian Dury, one of the most idiosyncratic performers to emerge from Britain’s musical new wave and disabled by childhood polio, came up with the track to counter patronizing portrayals of the “handicapped.” The title echoes the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Spartacus, in which slaves pass up the chance of avoiding execution by identifying the eponymous hero, instead expressing solidarity by standing up to cry “I’m Spartacus!” In the stadium thousands, sitting or standing, joined Dury’s chorus, “I’m Spasticus!”, and viewers—a peak of 11.2 million of them in the U.K. alone—were Spasticus too.

It won’t last, that moment of unity and enlightenment. But it was profound, and the Games promise to continue challenging preconceptions and prejudices.

PHOTOS: Highlights from the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony