Flag-bearers Forrest, Westlake lead Canadian team into Paralympic opening ceremony

Flag-bearers Forrest, Westlake lead Canadian team into Paralympic opening ceremony

The Beijing Paralympics opened with an impassioned plea for peace with war raging in Ukraine, and an almost audible sigh of relief two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flag-bearers Ina Forrest and Greg Westlake led Canada’s red-clad team of 49 athletes and four guides into Bird’s Nest stadium for an emotionally charged opening ceremony.

Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, spoke of his horror at the fighting in Ukraine.

“Tonight, I want — I must — begin with a message of peace,” Parsons told the athletes and some 30,000 spectators in attendance. “As the leader of an organization with inclusion at its core, where diversity is celebrated and differences embraced, I am horrified at what is taking place in the world right now.”

The ceremony punctuated a tumultuous week in Beijing that saw Russia and Belarus initially permitted to compete, but under a neutral banner. But a day later, in an unprecedented reversal, both countries were banned. Parsons said the charged atmosphere in the athletes village was “untenable.”

Russia invaded Ukraine days after the Beijing Olympics closed, and Parsons pointed out that the Olympic Truce for peace “must be respected and observed, not violated.”

Much of Parsons’ speech wasn’t heard on the live broadcast in China. Chinese state TV didn’t translate his condemnation of war, and then cut the volume from his mic. The Chinese government has refrained from criticizing the invasion and opposed the U.S., European and other sanctions imposed on Russia.

The Canadian Paralympic Committee was among nations who expressed concerns over the presence of Russia and Belarus, who’d both arrived in Beijing, but departed Thursday evening within hours of being banned.

Canada’s Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said the federal government shared the concerns, “and condemns, in the strongest possible terms, Russia’s horrific and unjustified actions against Ukraine.

“As we stand in solidarity with the brave and resilient people of Ukraine, we applaud the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to ban athletes from Russia and Belarus from the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. This was the right decision,” St-Onge said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our international sport counterparts to hold Russia and Belarus accountable for their actions.”

Biathlete Maksym Yarovyi carried Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag ahead of the besieged country’s 20-athlete delegation that took four days of harrowing travel to reach China.

“It’s a miracle that we have made it to the Paralympics,” said Ukrainian delegation head Valerii Sushkevych, who said he’d slept on the floor of a bus during the journey because of a back condition. “We overcame a lot of barriers on the way. Many members of our team had to escape while there was bombardment and shells exploding.”

Beijing is the second Paralympics to be held during the global pandemic, and Canadian athletes faced some of the world’s biggest hurdles to get the Games, due to tight travel restrictions and strict lockdowns that closed training facilities.

Josh Dueck, Canada’s chef de mission, said the team hasn’t set medal targets. With so few international competitions amid COVID-19, it’s simply too tough to gauge how Canada stacks up.

The crush of cases amid the fast-spreading Omicron variant also turned just getting to the Games without testing positive practically an Olympic sport in itself.

“I think it’s pretty fair to say that the herculean task is simply arriving safely,” Dueck said.

Parsons spoke about the hurdles in preparation thrown up by the pandemic.

“You define the meaning of the determination, you personify perseverance,” he told the athletes. “Celebrate your achievements here and be proud that your abilities can and will change the world for many, many millions of people.”

Canada has 48 athletes competing in hockey, curling, alpine and Nordic skiing and snowboarding over 10 days in Beijing, which is the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Games. Westlake is making his fifth Paralympic appearance in Para hockey, while Forrest is a two-time Olympic champion in wheelchair curling.

Some 560 athletes from 46 countries are competing in Beijing.

Li Duan, a blind long jumper who captured gold for China in both 2004 in Athens and in ‘08 in Beijing, lit the ceremonial cauldron, in the centre of a large white snowflake that then rose to the top of the open-air stadium.

The Winter Olympics, which closed on Feb. 20, were also held under strict COVID-19 protocols and a cloud of controversy due to both the forced labour of the Uyghur population of the Xinjiang region of China, and the presence of Russia despite doping sanctions.

But IOC president Thomas Bach’s words at the opening and closing ceremonies weren’t nearly as impassioned as Parson’s.

“We aspire to a better and more inclusive world, free from discrimination, free from hate, free from ignorance and free from conflict,” the Brazilian said. “Paralympic athletes … will compete with each other, not against each other.

“Paralympians know that an opponent does not have to be an enemy, and that united, we can achieve more, much more. Tonight, the Paralympic movement calls on world authorities to come together as athletes do, to promote peace, understanding and inclusion. The world must be a place for sharing, not dividing.”

He closed his comments by saying thanks in English, Mandarin and Portuguese, then clenched two fists and yelled: “Peace!”

Canada captured 28 medals — eight gold, four silver and 16 bronze — in Pyeongchang four years ago. Canada might not have to wait long for its first medal. Mark Arendz, who captured six medals in South Korea, competes in the 6K biathlon race Saturday morning.

— With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press