Japan's emperor declared the Tokyo Paralympics open in a nearly empty stadium on Tuesday, with athletes ready to defy stereotypes and shatter records despite a year-long delay imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. The Afghan flag was paraded as a gesture of solidarity.
Emperor Naruhito launched the 22-sport competition surrounded by banks of vacant multicoloured seats at Tokyo's 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, with virus rules banning spectators from almost all Games events.
"I declare open the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games," he said, wearing a white surgical mask.
The pared-down ceremony took place in front of around 800 VIPs and officials, but there was a celebratory mood as 162 teams enjoyed their long-awaited moment in the global spotlight.
The ceremony took "We Have Wings" as its concept, creating a mini "airport" on the stadium field and telling the story of a one-winged plane that takes to the skies.
A platform for change
A reduced parade of roughly 3,400 Paralympians and team officials entered the stadium, wearing masks but waving and dancing.
A volunteer carried Afghanistan's flag into the stadium as a "sign of solidarity" with athletes from the country, which is one of 21 nations unable to compete at the Games.
International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons said the event could be a "platform for change".
"Many doubted this day would happen, many thought it impossible, but thanks to the efforts of many, the most transformative sports event on Earth is about to begin," he said, as a steady drizzle fell in the stadium.
The 13-day Games, with 539 gold medals up for grabs across 22 sports, open two weeks after the close of an Olympics that also took place almost entirely behind closed doors because of virus control measures.
Games in the shadow of Covid
Paralympic athletes will be subject to the same rules as their Olympic counterparts -- including daily testing, mandatory mask-wearing and limits on their movement.
The run-up to the Games has been fraught, with polling for months showing Japanese were opposed to hosting them this summer.
The mood seemed to shift once the Olympics got under way, with a majority saying they were glad the event had gone ahead, but the virus situation in Japan has worsened dramatically in recent weeks.
The country has recorded more than 25,000 daily infections in the past week, and while the death toll remains comparatively small at around 15,500, just 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.