LONDON -- "Enlightenment" was the theme, physicist Stephen Hawking the guide and Olympic Stadium the venue Wednesday night as London welcomed 4,200 athletes from more than 160 nations to the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Who better to greet Paralympians than a scientist who has shown the world physical disabilities do not limit human potential?
"The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world. 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," said Hawking, who was given two years to live in 1963 after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
"What is important is that we have the ability to create ... however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at," he added.
The extravaganza, directed by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, was billed as a voyage across "a sea of ideas" -- including Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, the force that all Earth-bound athletes strive against. The show included 73 deaf and disabled professional performers and 68 disabled people among its 3,250 volunteers.
The gala opened with a look at the Big Bang -- considered the beginning of the universe -- as a glowing sphere turned the stadium into a giant nebula.
In a nod to the famously erratic British weather, umbrellas were a central theme. Seeing performers with no legs beneath the knee doing aerial flips carrying umbrellas could inspire the most ardent couch potato.
Sebastian Coe, chief of the London organizing committee, issued a big welcome home "to a movement that shows what sport is all about."
"Sport is about what you can do, what you can achieve, the limits you can reach, the barriers you can break. Sport shows what is possible. Sport refuses to take no for an answer," Coe told the audience of 60,000.
The London event is on track to be the most-watched Paralympics ever, with 2.5 million tickets expected to be sold by the time it ends Sept. 9.
As the athletes paraded in under a full moon, a huge roar filled the stadium for South African flag-bearer Oscar Pistorius, the sprinter who is making history by running in both the Olympics and the Paralympics this year..
The parade took nearly an hour longer than expected, with athletes arriving in dozens of ways. Some came in motorized carts, others wheeled themselves in, still others were pushed by coaches or volunteers. They walked in with canes or crutches, eye patches and sunglasses, prosthetic limbs and walking sticks, determined to make it around the imposing stadium, welcomed by a global music mash-up by local DJs.
Led by flag-bearer Garett Hickling, some 85 Canadian athletes marched in after Cameroon and ahead of Cape Verde.
Hicking, a 41-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., will represent Canada in wheelchair rugby at a fifth Games.
-- The Associated Press