Thursday, 30 August 2012 10:10
Margaret Maughan, Britain's first ever Paralympic champion, lit the cauldron here tonight to mark the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games following an emotional and spectacular Opening Ceremony.
It was after midnight when the 84-year-old former archer, who now lives in Hertfordshire, performed the honour to conclude the Ceremony in what was a stunning final segment that saw Royal Marine Commando Joe Townsend – an aspiring Paralympic triathlete – emerge with the Flame at the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, just outside the Olympic Stadium.
Fortunately for London 2012, it was the very Flame used in the 24-hour Torch Relay from Stoke Mandeville and it arrived just in the nick of time despite fears it would not make the Ceremony due to delays on the route to the Stadium that at one point reached two-and-a-half-hours.
Flame in hand, Townsend descended on a zip wire onto the field of play and handed the Torch to David Clarke, a visually impaired athlete competing in the ParalympicsGB five-a-side football team at the Games.
Clarke passed it to the final Torchbearer Maughan, who won Britain's first gold medal at the inaugural Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960.
She lit a single tiny flame within one of the copper petals of Thomas Heatherwick's specially design cauldron, which triggered the ignition of all the other petals as the elegant stems gently rose towards each other and converged to create one great Flame of unity to conclude the event.
The Ceremony titled "Enlightenment" had begun hours earlier with a rare public appearance from internationally acclaimed and celebrated British scientist Professor Stephen Hawking, the most famous disabled man on the planet.
The 70-year-old from Oxford gave the world a global message of hope and optimism as he urged people to be curious and create a brave new and better world for everyone by challenging perceptions and stereotypes that limit the potential of humans.
"Look up at the stars and not down at your feet," Hawking said.
"Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.
His words sparked a dramatic "Big Bang" that was followed by a wonderful sequence based on William Shakespeare's famous play "The Tempest" which saw British actor Sir Ian McKellen in the role of Prospero as he sent his daughter Miranda - and a worldwide audience - on a journey through the Ceremony.
The journey of Miranda - who was played by Nicola Miles Wildin - was one that combined soaring operatic performances with alternative British urban punk and international cinema cult music and songs, dramatic high wire aerial performances and dance movements across the roof of the stadium.
It was then that the Queen arrived with International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Sir Philip Craven to signal the start of the athletes' parade.
It saw 164 teams march around the cheering Stadium and seated on the field of play while it concluded with a deafening roar for the ParalympicsGB team, led round by wheelchair tennis star Peter Norfolk.
London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe took to the stage and declared: "Prepare to be inspired, prepare to be dazzled, prepare to be moved by the Paralympic Games of London 2012."
Sir Philip then claimed that "Tonight is the start of something extremely special" before the Queen officially declared the London 2012 Paralympic Games open.
Miranda's dreamlike journey continued again with spectacular dancing and song from a variety of hugely talented able-bodied and disabled performances before, in the best traditions of quirky British humour, the world's biggest apple bite took place in a tribute to Sir Isaac Newton as over 60,000 audience members simultaneously took a bite from the apples that were given on arrival.
It was then that Hawking reappeared for a final address to a rapturous reception.
"The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world," he said.
"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.
"The Games provide an opportunity for athletes to excel, to stretch themselves and become outstanding in their field.
"So let us together celebrate excellence, friendship, and respect."
It was then that the cauldron was lit, and rather fittingly by Maughan.
She had a car accident in 1959 which left her unable to walk and she was treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where Paralympic Games founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann pioneered the use of sport in therapy.
It was there, upon the advice of Sir Ludwig, that she took up archery before she went on to win Britain's first Paralympic gold medal in 1960 and then to compete at a further four Paralympics.
Her lighting marked the end of a wonderful show that was the brainchild of Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings.
"The Paralympic Games is the second largest sporting event in the world, and it's taking place in our home city," said the co-artistic directors of the Ceremony.
"We couldn't be prouder to have been asked to direct the Opening Ceremony."
"We wanted our Ceremony to be both spectacular and deeply human.
"Having worked together over a number of years we were determined that the Ceremony should speak from the heart, tell a story, showcase our world leading deaf and disabled artists and rise to the emotional and historic occasion of the homecoming of the Paralympic Games."
After tonight, there will be no doubting that Sealey and Hemmings achieved their goal in style.
By Tom Degun at the Olympic Stadium in London