Coldplay and Rihanna rocked the Olympic Stadium Sunday night to give the 2012 Paralympic Games a rousing send-off and wrap up an unforgettable summer of sports in London.
Jay-Z joined the three-hour party at a packed 80,000-seat arena that has played host to memorable moments across both the Olympics and Paralympics.
Central to the ceremony – called the ‘Festival of the Flame’ – were the 4,200 Paralympians from 164 nations who encircled the field of play from the start, waving flags and taking in the extraordinary atmosphere.
“I think it’s been an absolute triumph from start to finish,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009. “I think back to Ivan. As every parent, you think about all the things they can’t do, but at the Paralympics they are superhuman, you see all the things they can do.
The 2012 Paralympics have broken all records, with 2.7 million spectators cramming into venues and more than $70 million raised in ticket sales – both unprecedented figures as the British public displayed a previously unseen enthusiasm in the 52-year history of the Paralympics.
The games were broadcast in more than 100 countries and the wide exposure introduced the world to Paralympians such as Dutch wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer – who extended her nine-year unbeaten streak to 470 matches by winning the women’s singles.
In total, 251 world records were broken over the 11 days.
A moving tribute to wounded British servicemen and members of the British army opened the show. Luke Sinnott, a captain who lost both legs from above the knee in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2010, hung the Union Flag at the top of a flagpole in the middle of the stadium and the extravaganza kicked off.
Russia’s performance was perhaps the biggest surprise of the Paralympics as the nation climbed to second in the medals table after China. Russia’s top Paralympian in London was Oxana Savchenko. The 21-year-old swimmer won gold in all five of her events, to add to the three she gained in Beijing four years ago.
American swimmer Jessica Long, 20, also dominated in the pool, winning five gold medals, two silvers and a bronze.
Proud flag-bearers from all competing nations marched in before a motorcade of 25 trucks, in a variety of shapes including peacocks and fish, stormed the stadium and kick-started Coldplay’s set list.
Top-selling hits like Clocks, Viva La Vida and Paradise were belted out by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, with artistic director Kim Gavin keen to reflect the four seasons at the heart of the show.
“Being asked to play at the Paralympic closing ceremony in our hometown is a huge honour,” Coldplay said. “We can’t actually imagine a bigger honour.”
A true inspiration
White confetti rained down as snow, black crows on stilts encircled the stage, flaming butterflies swirled in the air and a flying motorbike driven by highwire artist Laszlo Simet with disabled dancer Lyndsay Adams powered across the stadium.
“Being at the Paralympics is the biggest honour,” said Rihanna, dressed in a flowing orange gown. “These athletes are gladiators and are a true inspiration to me.”
She sang We Found Love while swinging high above the stage, a performance sure to give her insurer a heart attack.
Such was the global attraction of performing at the closing ceremony that organizers were able to turn down approaches to appear. Rihanna, Jay Z and Coldplay – acclaimed artists who have sold millions of records among them – were being paid a nominal US$1.60 to play.
Last night’s Paralympics closing ceremony brought the curtain down with a spectacular celebration of the human spirit, amid claims the Games had led to a “seismic” shift in attitudes towards disability. The ceremony finished with the cauldron – made up of 200 petals – being extinguished, ending the Games in London and passing the baton to Rio de Janeiro for 2016.
“On August 29, we opened with the theme of ‘Enlightenment’,” said Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee. “Tonight, we are enlightened and armed with a superior knowledge of what can be achieved. The legacy of these Games will be long-lasting.”
Mary Zakayo, a Kenyan javelin thrower and shot-putter credited with changing the face of Paralympic sport in Africa, and Michael McKillop, an Irishman who won two middle-distance golds in the Olympic Stadium, were chosen as the athletes who best exemplified the spirit of the Games. They earned the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award.
Writing for The Australian newspaper, disabled journalist Melanie Reid marveled at the unique sights of Paralympic events: “80,000 people falling silent so that a blind long-jumper can sprint into her darkness towards the sound of someone clapping.
“The sight of a young woman, her body frantic with cerebral palsy, achieving serenity on the back of a horse. The potency of men with no legs turned into gods by the menace of their running blades.”
She concluded that the games had somehow made disability “cool”.
And that’s a great note to end on.