There was a comfort and a familiarity arriving into Stratford on Wednesday evening. It has been a mere seventeen days since the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games, but for me and many others it had been an glum eternity. And yet, seeing the distinct trim of the Games Makers' uniforms, the bright fuchsia signage littered around and sensing the unseen energy of excitement and anticipation we were back to a place that felt like home. It was Games-time again, for the opening night of the Paralympics.
The Opening Ceremony of the fourteenth edition of the Summer Games was an 80000 sell-out. The Games as a whole arrived on a wave of enthusiasm and demand, the type of which has never been seen before. The London 2012 Olympics has played a huge part in that, but the very intrinsic relationship the British public have with disability has meant the event is not being viewed as a lesser partner, or after-thought, as other hosts have treated it. The exceptional reverence to the Stoke Mandeville Games and the work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann in recent days has brought the story of the Paralympics alive to many. Against this backdrop, coupled with that fuzzy feeling of being back on the Olympic Park, the mood of spectators was strong.
It was noticeable how much the Olympic feel has been erased from the Park. Whilst not a new phenomenon to those in and around London over the last fortnight, the replacing of logos and emblems with those of the IPC ensured focus. Whilst there as much to align branding, it helped train the mind to expect something as great as the Olympics, but different.
As such, the show (co-directed by Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings) was someway removed from Danny Boyle's spectacle a month ago. Entitled Enlightenment and anchored by physicist Stephen Hawking with the support of actor Sir Ian McKellen, the ceremony had a distinct high-end feel to it. If the Isles of Wonder was entertainment, then this was education. The choreography, the music and symbolism provoked thought and engagement. It was a pleasurable test, to engage with the set pieces put forward without expecting pop stars or celebrities to emerge. And yet, while the story of Miranda (a character from Shakespeare's The Tempest, used to anchor the artistic story of the night) was enchanting, it was the sight of Paralympians from all over the world converge into the stadium during the Athletes Parade, as well stories run on the big screens of hope triumphing over despair that brought tears to the eye.
Striking highlights included the beautiful montage of Paralympians drifting through the air on wires; seeing Tanni Grey-Thompson, back in race gear for this segment, was a magnificent sight. The arrival of the Paralympic flame was astonishing, from Joe Townsend's arrival atop the Orbit through to the utter poignancy of Margaret Maughan, the first-ever British Gold medallist at a Paralympic Games - and a patient of the late Dr. Guttmann - lighting the cauldron.
The arrival of Paralympic GB to the strains of Bowie's Heroes was treated with a deafening roar that made the din generated on 'Super Saturday' seem like a house party over the road in Hackney. If there was any doubt about public perception or feeling toward the Games they were dispatched emphatically.
Inspirational is a word we will be hearing a lot over the next ten days. And whilst it is incredibly apt for the Paralympic movement, it doesn't do it any justice. What the Opening Ceremony showed more than anything is that the viewing public are going to love these athletes and their endeavours in a way that wasn't conceivable during the Olympics.
The final theme of the night was of 'I am who I am'. A simple message, that again defined and challenged notions of disability. And while social media channels came alive to the news that the GB team hid their Atos-branded lanyards in a political protest, the feeling was loud and clear - these Paralympics are for everyone. And we will marvel at their achievements and endeavour.
And perhaps we may just find ourselves saying at the end of it 'Oly-who?'