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Calls for peace and inclusion dominated the Winter Paralympics opening ceremony

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 04: Fireworks are seen as the Olympic cauldron is lit during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics at the Beijing National Stadium on March 04, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Wang He/Getty Images for International Paralympic Committee)
Fireworks are seen as the Olympic cauldron is lit during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics at the Beijing National Stadium on March 04, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Updated March 4, 2022 at 10:29 AM ET

The Beijing Paralympic Games kick off on Friday, as much of the world's attention is focused on Russia's war in Ukraine and its consequences at home. In fact, organizers have just banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing – reversing their original decision just a day before the Games were set to begin. Hundreds of world-class athletes will participate in this year's events, which run through March 13. Paralympic organizers say there are 564 athletes representing 46 different countries, with a record numberof 138 women on the roster. They will compete in 78 events across six sports in two disciplines, from ice sports like para ice hockey and wheelchair curling to snow sports including alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon and snowboarding. Armchair athletes can gear up for a marathon, too: NBC Universal says it's airing 230 hours of Paralympic programming, including a record 120 hours on TV. Three of those hours will be on primetime, in what it calls a Winter Paralympics first. You can watch events on NBC, Peacock, USA Network, Olympic Channel as well as NBC's Olympics website and sports app. Here's a day-by-day viewing guide.Below are highlights from Friday's opening ceremony.

Teams of various sizes marched in the Parade of Nations

The Parade of Nations began about 15 minutes into the ceremony, led by the delegation from Belgium. Countries typically march in the order of the host country's alphabet – and in Beijing, that's determined by the stroke order of the first character in each country's simplified Chinese name. It featured teams both big and small. China's was the largest, with 96 athletes, followed by Team USA with 65. Other delegations, such as those of Puerto Rico and Israel, were represented by a single athlete each. Italian athletes marched second-to-last, since their country is hosting the 2026 Winter Paralympics in Milan. China's delegation concluded the parade.

Ukrainian athletes got a warm reception

Athletes from Ukraine were among the first to march in the ceremony, appearing in the stadium to what sounded like a roar from the audience. Some members of Ukraine's 20-person delegation raised their fists as they made their way across the floor. TV cameras panned to Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, giving a standing ovation. Ukraine Paralympic committee president Valeriy Sushkevych called the team's arrival in Beijing "a miracle," telling reporters on Thursday that some of the athletes narrowly escaped Russian bombs as they departed. Sushkevych said his country's presence at the Paralympics is "a sign that Ukraine was, is and will remain a country.""There are two front lines right now," he said. "One is in Ukraine for our soldiers. And one is here in Beijing."

Two veteran alpine skiers carried Team USA's flag

Team USA is made up of 67 athletes, including two guides for visually impaired athletes, with a mix of veterans and newcomers. Thirty-nine have competed – and 26 have medaled – in previous Paralympic Games. Of those, 22 have won gold. The team includes two six-time Paralympians, Nordic skiers Oksana Masters and Aaron Pike, and one five-time Paralympian, Laurie Stephens in alpine skiing. Three members are now competing in their fourth Winter Games. Here are some of the athletes to watch. Alpine skiers Danelle Umstead and Tyler Carter were chosen by majority vote to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony. Carter is a three-time Paralympian who made his debut at the Sochi Games in 2014. He served as the Team USA athlete service coordinator for the Tokyo Paralympics, and currently works for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum. The 28-year-old has said he plans to retire after Beijing, and called the honor "a really cool way to end my athletic career and Games experience."Umstead, a four-time Paralympian and three-time medalist, was joined by her husband Rob, who also acts as her guide. They are the only married couple on the team, and have been skiing together competitively since 2008. "I was completely surprised," Umstead said, of being chosen by her teammates. "They did a beautiful thing, and they had my husband tell me. Everything I have done, he has been by my side. He is so proud. This is such an honor, and I was completely shocked." The athletes, clad in red, white and blue jackets, marched through the stadium while waving and taking selfies.

The Paralympics head made an emphatic call for peace and inclusion

Parsons, the IPC president, started and ended his opening remarks with an impassioned plea for peace. "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," he said, to cheers from the crowd. He did not mention Russia by name, but called for the Olympic Truce for peace – a United Nations resolution adopted by consensus in December – to be respected and observed. The symbolic resolution says the traditional Olympic Truce must be observed from seven days before the start of the Beijing Olympics until seven days after the end of the Paralympics. On behalf of the Paralympic movement, Parsons urged world authorities to act as athletes do by coming together to promote peace, understanding and inclusion, adding that the world "must be a place for sharing, not for dividing.""Here in Beijing, Paralympic athletes from 46 different nations will compete with each other, not against each other," he said at one point. "Paralympians know that an opponent does not have to be an enemy, and that united we can achieve more, much more."Parsons talked about athletics as a catalyst for transformation, mentioning the work China has done to make venues more accessible and take precautions against COVID-19, noting that the pandemic made it especially difficult for athletes to prepare for their events. He urged them to embrace the strength in their differences, adding that their achievements show the world that people with disabilities "can do whatever they want, if given the opportunity." The #WeThe15 campaign from the IPC, International Disability Alliance and a coalition of other organizations is pushing for the world's 1.2 billion citizens with disabilities to have access to that same level of opportunity, Parsons added. He closed his speech with a note of thanks in English, Chinese and his native Brazilian. Then he raised his arms in the air and yelled, "Peace!" to more audience applause.

Themes of reconnection and inclusivity took center stage

The storytelling portion of the ceremony featured a mix of performers with and without disabilities, as the NBC broadcasters noted. It also incorporated lantern imagery – which is fitting, since the 2022 Paralympics' mascot is an anthropomorphic glowing lantern namedShuey Rhon Rhon. (Fluffy panda Bing Dwen Dwen stole the show as the Olympics' mascot last month.)A young girl picked up a lantern, placing it on the high-definition LED floor to create color and movement across the stadium. There were multiple scenes of people reconnecting – parents playing with a child, a mother embracing a girl in a backpack, a man and woman holding hands, a young boy enthusiastically greeting an older man. At one point, two boys colored the Paralympic symbols – red, blue and green shapes representing movement – on the palm of Hsiao Huang-chi, a prominent, visually impaired Taiwanese singer. Another performer pressed her palm to his and revealed the logo on her own hand. Then everyone on stage lifted their hands to reveal the same colorful marks. There was also a performance in which a large group of dancers on wheeled stools – half of the performers were hearing-impaired, the announcers said – made patterns and designs on the colorful floor. Thirteen interpreters (symbolizing the 13th Winter Paralympics) stood around them on rotating LED snowflakes, raising their arms and fingers to the beat of the music.

After a lengthy relay, the torch ended up inside a giant snowflake

The Paralympic torch looks like a silver and gold scroll and bears similarities to its Olympic counterpart, as organizers explain. It honors Beijing's legacy as the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics with a spiral design that recalls the cauldron of the 2008 Games.The torch relay, which began on Wednesday, included 565 torchbearers across the three competition zones of Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou. The final flame combines nine flames from nine locations, including the birthplace of the Paralympics in London and several Beijing landmarks. The opening ceremony included a video montage of people touching their torches together to light them, against a variety of backdrops and landscapes. Once in the stadium, a number of Chinese Paralympians – with medals in events from alpine skiing and sitting volleyball to swimming and wheelchair basketball – passed the flame to each others' torches. The torchbearer was Li Duan, a visually impaired long jumper who won medals in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 before his retirement. Accompanied by a guide, he brought the torch to the cauldron raised in the center of the stadium. It was shaped like a massive snowflake made of smaller flakes, recalling similar imagery from last month's Olympic opening ceremony. A platform emerged from the stadium floor, bringing Duan alone to the center of the snowflake. The crowd watched and cheered encouragingly as he felt around for the place to connect the torch, and roared when he ultimately clicked it in. The snowflake rose toward the ceiling as performers sang, participants ran onto the stage and fireworks burst above the stadium. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.