BEIJING, Sept. 6 (Xinhua) -- With a dazzling and emotional show that highlighted the value, dignity and dream of life, the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games opened in the Chinese capital on Saturday night, rallying the world under one shared dream of "transcendence, integration and equality" for the disabled.
"Ge Jiu Ge Wei (ready), Yu Bei (set) ... " At the order given in Chinese by International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Philip Craven, nearly 100,000 spectators in the National Stadium, or the Bird's Nest, in north Beijing, clapped their hands simultaneously to give a unique and resounding "go" signal to the world's premier sporting event for elite athletes with disabilities.
A record 4,000-plus athletes from 147 countries and regions, 10 times the figure at the Games' debut in Rome 1960, marched into the stadium amid thundering cheers from the stands, before Chinese President Hu Jintao declared the Games open at 22:36 Beijing time.
"These Games will have more athletes, more competing nations, and more sporting events than ever before," said Philip Craven in his opening ceremony speech, calling them "milestones in Paralympic history."
The three-hour ceremony climaxed when Hou Bin, China's triple Paralympic high jump champion with only one leg, lit the cauldron for the Games.
With the torch on his wheelchair, the 33-year-old Hou used both hands to pull himself up along a hanging rope to the rim of the steel-latticed Bird's Nest to accomplish his laborious mission. Though suspended by wires, he had to halt and gasp for several times, with the entire crowd cheering him on loudly.
The Paralympic flame, first lit at the 600-year-old Temple of Heaven in south Beijing on Aug. 28, was relayed through 11 Chinese cities -- including ancient capitals Xi'an and Luoyang and modern metropolises Shanghai and Shenzhen -- in nine days, covering a distance of 13,181 kilometers and involving 850 torchbearers.
Shortly before the cauldron was set ablaze, the IPC flag, which carries the IPC logo of red, blue and green curves -- a new design adopted just in 2003 and used at a Paralympics for the first time, was escorted into the stadium by a team of eight Chinese Paralympic gold medalists, and hoisted next to the Chinese national flag.
On behalf of all athletes and officials, Chinese athlete Wu Chunmiao and goalball referee Hao Guohua, holding a corner of the IPC flag, took the Paralympic oath, vowing to keep the Games competition fair and clean.
"Over the next 11 days, the heroines and heroes will undoubtedly be the athletes," said the IPC president.
The Paralympians, many in wheelchairs or on crutches and often seen supporting each other on the track, were ushered into the stadium minutes after the opening ceremony began at 20:00 Beijing time sharp.
All smiling broadly, they waved hands, hats and flags to the stands, and posed for pictures with team guides or volunteers.
The parade sequence was decided by the number of strokes of the first character of the delegations' Chinese names, and Guinea, whose name begins with a two-stroke character, became the leader.
As is customary, the host delegation entered last. Having surprisingly topped both the gold and overall medal tally at the Athens 2004 Paralympics with 63 golds, 46 silvers and 32 bronzes, China sent in the largest delegation of 547 members and 332 athletes to these Games.
Wang Xiaofu, a 20-year-old amputee swimmer who won three golds with three world records at the Athens Paralympics and will compete in seven events this time, carried the flag and spearheaded the team.
While the Chinese Paralympians, who will compete in all the 20 sports and 295 of the total 472 events at these Games, are eager and set to deliver on the home field and repeat their glory four years ago, they will meet strong contest from traditional Paralympic powerhouses like Britain, Canada, the United States and Australia.
Throughout the 1.5-hour march-in, the athletes were constantly applauded and saluted by the enthusiastic crowd, in which sat all top leaders of China and dozens of foreign dignitaries, including German President Horst Koehler, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and International Olympic Committee Honorary President Juan Antonio Samaranch.
Seated on the floor of the stadium, the athletes joined the spectators to enjoy an hour-long art performance titled "Flying with the Dream."
The show, carefully prepared over nearly two years, was staged in a fairy-tale setting which had the entire stadium floor draped in blue and placed a glittering "white jade plate," 72 meters in diameter, in the center.
A young man who sings in a magnetic voice, an angel-faced 12-year-old girl who has a crazy love for ballet, and 320 pretty young women dressed in pure white silk gowns who float on the stage like fairies ... all looked so perfect and romantic until the large screens in the stadium revealed the cruel truth: the singer was born into total darkness, the ballet girl lost her left leg in the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake, and the 320 dancers are all with hearing impairment.
But sadness and sympathetic tears were the least things the artistic directors desired, and the spectators would simply marvel at the miracle of life and the undying power of dreams, when they hear the blind singer say "If I could see for only three days, the people I want to see most are my dad, my mom and all of you", see the girl in wheelchair keep practicing ballet with her arms and the remaining leg and pose beautifully on the shoulders of an able-bodied danseur, and witness the deaf dancers whirl and swing gracefully and in clockwork precision under the guidance of 50 sign language teachers.
There were some 420 disabled artists among the 5,000-strong performers at the opening ceremony, according to Zhang Jigang, the executive artistic director. "In them you could only find the beauty of dreams, joy of participation and sharing, and the happiness and dignity of being."
"Flying with the dream, flying to the heaven of love," sang Chinese pop singers Han Hong and Andy Lau, when they jointly presented the Games' theme song "Flying with the Dream."
Pushing the festive atmosphere to culmination, some 2,000 kids, all in lovely animal cartoon costumes -- including the Games' cow-image mascot "Fu Niu Lele" -- swarmed into the Bird's Nest and danced in wild ecstasy. Some excited spectators cooperated by imitating the animal sounds, particularly the cow moos.
"The Beijing Paralympic Games is a grand gathering for people with a disability from across the globe," said Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the 29th Olympic Games (BOCOG), at the opening ceremony.
"It educates people to the power of love, and encourages people to devote more understanding, respect and support to people with a disability," he said. "Through the Paralympic Games, the humanitarian spirit is raised to new heights, and the cause for people with a disability is promoted far and wide."
Among the world's disabled population of over 600 million, some 83 million live in China.
At a welcoming luncheon of the Beijing Paralympics earlier on Saturday, President Hu of China pledged that the country would take the Games as an opportunity to better protect the rights and interests of the disabled, and ensure they share the benefits of economic and social development as equal members of the society.
Though the Paralympic Games and the Olympic Games have been taking place in the same year ever since 1960, and using the same venues in the same host city since Seoul 1988, it is the first time that one same organizing committee with exactly the same personnel has taken charge of the preparations for both Games.
"The Beijing Paralympic Games is testimony to the trust the world has rested on China. The Chinese government and people have supported the preparatory work of the Beijing Paralympic Games with immense enthusiasm," said Liu, adding that the BOCOG has spared no efforts to achieve the goal of "Two Games, Equal Splendor."
In the seven-year run-up to the Games, tens of thousands of barrier-free facilities, including ramp, blind walkway, voice prompt system and guidance handrail, were put in place, while parking lots, public transit stations, elevators and public toilets were renovated to improve accessibility for the disabled. The changes took place not only at Games venues, but also tourist attractions such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
And less than two weeks from the closing of the Beijing Olympic Games on Aug. 24, 44,000 volunteers, more than 80 percent of whom had served the Olympics, were ready for the Paralympics. Some 1 million others in the city also chose to stick to their Olympics-period duty -- helping the Games organizers in security, transport, information and lodging services.
With stunning speed and amazing efficiency, the Chinese capital completed a near perfect conversion from the Olympic host to the Paralympic host, changing Games logos, emblems, slogans and mascot patterns in almost every noticeable corner -- Games venues, media centers, roadside banners and posters, reserved traffic lanes, and even flower arrangements on the Tian'anmen Square.
While IOC President Jacques Rogge reserved his judgment of the Beijing Olympics -- "These were truly exceptional Games!" -- for the last sentences of his closing speech, his Paralympic counterpart foresaw the success of the Beijing Paralympics even before the cauldron started to burn.
The Beijing Olympic Games were "marvelous," and the Paralympic Games would sure be "stupendous," the IPC chief told the world in his opening speech.
And he told China and the Beijing Organizing Committee: "I would like to thank you all for this great work."