Organisers hope the 11-day 2012 Paralympics will help transform ideas about disability around the world.
Paralympic Games get underway in London with celebration of human spirit
LONDON// The Paralympic cauldron was lit last night - as organisers hope the most high-profile Games in history will transform ideas about disability the world over.
The flame arrived in spectacular fashion, brought down a zip wire from the 115-metre (377-feet) high observation tower overlooking the Olympic Stadium in East London by a British soldier wounded on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Royal Marine commando Joe Townsend, who lost both legs when he stepped on a homemade bomb, is now an aspiring Paralympic triathlete who hopes to compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 when the sport makes its debut.
He handed the torch to Britain's five-a-side football team captain Dave Clarke, who passed it to Margaret Maughan, Britain's first Paralympic gold medallist at the inaugural Paralympics in Rome in 1960.
She then lit the petals of the cauldron inscribed with the names of all participating countries, triggering a firework display in the skies overhead.
Queen Elizabeth II earlier officially opened the Games at the showpiece ceremony involving more than 3,000 volunteer and professional performers, many of them with a disability, combining music, dance and aerial acrobatics.
London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe said hoped the Games "would be a landmark for people with a disability everywhere, a landmark in the progress of mankind towards the light, towards seeing immense capability and possibility".
The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Craven, added that the Games were "a celebration of the human spirit" that had "the energy to change each and every one of us".
The show began with a fly-past over the stadium by a former serviceman who was helped by a charity that trains disabled pilots and a rare public appearance by Britain's most-famous living scientist Stephen Hawking.
The theoretical physicist, author of "A Brief History of Time" who has motor neuron disease and has been paralysed most of his life, was described by organisers as "the most famous disabled person anywhere on the planet".
He guided a central character on a journey of discovery in a story inspired by William Shakespeare's "The Tempest", taking in the "Big Bang" theory on the creation of the universe about which he has written extensively, to the 18th century "Enlightenment" period and scientific discoveries of the modern era.
The 70-year-old said through a voice synthesizer: "The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world.
"We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create.
"This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics. However difficult life may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at."
On Thursday, a record 4,200 athletes, including an unprecedented number of women, from 165 countries will compete for 503 medals in 20 sports in front of a near-sell-out crowd for the first time in the Games' 52-year history.
The UAE has sent a 15-strong team to the Paralympics, in fields as diverse as shooting, weightlifting and shotput, with high hopes for bringing back medals where their able-bodied counterparts did not.
A total of 166 countries had been due to take part but the IPC said Malawi's team had not travelled to London for what would have been the country's first Paralympics.
Organisers believe much of the increased domestic interest in the event comes after a successful Olympics for British athletes, which saw the host nation finish third in the overall medal table behind the United States and China.
Britain is considered the "spiritual home" of the Games, as the first recognised sports events for athletes with disabilities was held in Stoke Mandeville, southern England, in 1948, 12 years before the first Paralympics.
The Paralympic flame was lit at Stoke Mandeville on Tuesday evening and brought to London in an overnight relay.
Shooting is set to provide the first gold of the Games on Thursday in the women's 10m standing air rifle.
Medals are also up for grabs in the velodrome with the finals of the men and women's individual pursuit, in four weight categories in judo at the EXCEL Arena and at the Aquatics Centre, where 15 swimming finals are to be held.
The showpiece athletics programme gets under way on Friday with the spotlight on South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, who is seeking to defend his T44 100m, 200m and 400m titles from Beijing four years ago.
Pistorius, dubbed the "Blade Runner" because he runs on carbon fibre blades, made history this month by becoming the first double-amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics 400m and 4x400m relay final.
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