The Paralympic Games have opened in Beijing with a spectacular burst of fireworks as China's leaders hope the event will show them in a positive light.This content was published on September 6, 2008 - 18:02
More than 4,000 disabled athletes from 148 countries, including Switzerland, will be competing for medals over the next ten days. The Games come just two weeks after the Summer Olympics ended.
Chinese President Hu Jintao declared the Games open, as the Olympic flame was lit ending a three-hour ceremony in the Chinese capital, Beijing, on Saturday.
The head of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Craven, said the Games would go down in history as the biggest event of this kind.
Thousands of cheerleaders and dancers in puffy, rainbow-coloured suits performed a dance routine in the centre of the field at the National Stadium – the Bird's Nest - before athletes were introduced.
The crowd cheered and waved flags as China's Communist Party leaders and foreign dignitaries looked on.
The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Köhler and Swiss Sport Minister Samuel Schmid.
The athletes, with a wide range of physical disabilities, will use many of the same Olympic venues and compete in 20 sports, including athletics, football, judo, powerlifting and wheelchair fencing.
Switzerland entered 26 athletes for the Paralympic Summer Games and aims for at least 11 medals. Four years ago, Switzerland won 16 medals at the Games in Athens.
The host nation is nearly certain to top the medal table at the Beijing Paralympics. In Athens China clinched a total of 141 medals ahead of Australia, Britain and the United States.
"China's people and government have always attached great importance to the cause of the disabled," Hu Jintao said in remarks televised on state television.
He added the country insisted on putting people first, carrying forward a humanitarian spirit and advocating equality and opposing discrimination.
Observers say China is keen to use the Paralympics to highlight the efforts made to help the country's 83 million disabled citizens.
The official Xinhua news agency said Beijing used much of its $100 million (SFr111.9 million) budget for the Paralympics to improve disabled facilities in competition venues, airports, the public transport system, hotels, hospitals and tourist attractions.
However, rights groups say the situation for disabled people is far from perfect.
Human Rights Watch said the government's commitment to people with disabilities remained limited unless it improved ordinary citizens' access to justice.
Conspicuously absent from the Games are several survivors of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protest crackdown, including a former wheelchair discus and javelin champion.
swissinfo with agencies
The Paralympics take place in Beijing from September 6-19.
About 4,000 disabled athletes from 148 countries are taking part.
The Swiss delegation is made up of 26 athletes, one of the smallest contingents in recent years.
Heinz Frei, 23-time Paralympic medal winner, carried the Swiss flag at the opening ceremony.
The Paralympics come less than a month after Beijing hosted the Olympic Summer Games.
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