The Paralympic Games kicked off on Tuesday night in a poignant opening ceremony in Tokyo, with Afghanistan's flag carried into the stadium by a volunteer due to athletes not being able to compete.
Tokyo's National Stadium was empty for the start of the Paralympics, continuing the pandemic measures that marked the Olympics.
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It was a circus-like opening ceremony with acrobats, clowns, vibrant music and fireworks atop the stadium to mark the start of the long parade of athletes.
The opening ceremony featured the national flags of the 162 delegations represented, which included the refugee team.
However the flag of Afghanistan had to be carried by a volunteer because two athletes who were supposed to compete haven't been able to make their way to Tokyo due to the turmoil in their homeland.
Commercial flights in and out of Afghanistan have been suspended since the Taliban group gained control of the country last week.
"We will include the Afghanistan flag in the ceremony in a sign of solidarity and we have invited the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative here to act as the flagbearer," International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Andrew Parsons said on Monday.
"We would like to have them here, unfortunately it is not possible, but they will be here in spirit."
Two Afghan athletes had qualified for the Paralympics - taekwondo competitor Zakia Khudadadi and discus thrower Hossain Rasouli.
Khudadadi would have been the first woman to represent Afghanistan in Paralympics history but said in a video last week that she was “imprisoned inside the house”.
However one Afghan who will be competing is Abbas Karimi, who fled the country several years ago and is part of the refugee team.
This is heartbreaking 💔
— 💧Stephanie Dempsey (@Stephanie85WAGY) August 24, 2021
— Seth Robson (@sethrobson1) August 24, 2021
The Beauty of the #Paralympics
🇦🇫#Tokyo2020 Volunteers are carrying Afghanistan's flag at the #OpeningCeremony
🛩Commercial flights in & out of Afghanistan have been suspended since the Taliban gained control
Thus the nation's athletes are unable to compete in #Tokio2020 pic.twitter.com/9ZxLq5j79R
— #Tokyo2020 Paralympics (@alimo_philip) August 24, 2021
A #Tokyo2020 volunteer is carrying the Afghanistan flag into the Olympic Stadium. People stood and clapped loudly when Afghanistan was called. Our Afghan brothers and sisters should be here. 🇦🇫 #Paralympics pic.twitter.com/44bdegACTQ
— Melanie Brock (@melaniebrockjpn) August 24, 2021
— Miriam Walker-Khan (@mimwalkerkhan) August 24, 2021
Aussie athletes stay away from opening ceremony
Australia started the Paralympics with social isolation, sending only three people to the opening ceremony.
While many other countries had athletes marching behind their flag bearers on Tuesday night, chef de mission Kate McLoughlin was the only Australian team member to join flag bearers and team co-captains Danni di Toro and Ryley Batt in the ceremony.
McLoughlin said the decision for Australian athletes not to march at the opening ceremony was made several weeks ago.
"While it's a decision I didn't want to have to make, it's one we made to keep the athletes safe and to make sure they did get to the start line," she said.
"It just got down to the fact that we're here to compete, we're here to perform for Australia.
"It's far from ideal. Safety is our No.1 priority for this team."
McLoughlin said factors such as potentially having to share opening ceremony transport with other countries influenced the decision.
The Australian team had their own small ceremony at the athletes' village and sent off their flag bearers with a guard of honour.
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