The Tokyo Paralympics opened Tuesday night following a one-year postponement, with questions unanswered over whether it is safe to hold the world's largest event for athletes with disabilities during a public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Tokyo is the first city to host the Summer Paralympics twice, having staged the 1964 edition. But this time, the games will be held under conditions that nobody had imagined before the virus took hold, with safety measures preventing regular spectators from attending, as was the case during the Olympics.
A record 4,403 athletes from 161 countries and regions, as well as a small refugee team, will take center stage through Sept. 5, in what the International Paralympic Committee said is a "remarkable achievement" given the difficulties posed by the global health crisis.
The Paralympics will consist of 539 medal events across 22 sports. Taekwondo and badminton have been added to the program for the first time, while other sports include swimming, athletics, boccia and wheelchair tennis.
"I declare open the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games," Japanese Emperor Naruhito said at the National Stadium, with the 68,000-capacity main venue a sea of empty seats because only VIPs were allowed to attend as a precaution against the spread of the virus.
Taking place on a stage resembling an airport, the opening ceremony saw mask-wearing athletes waving at the camera as they entered in the order of the Japanese alphabet, with the refugee team leading the way.
Since athletes from Afghanistan could not travel to Tokyo after the Taliban retook control of the country earlier this month, the country's flag was carried by a volunteer to represent "solidarity" with those in the Central Asian nation.
Held under the concept of "We Have Wings," the ceremony told a story about a plane with one wing that dreamed of taking flight, with a dance-like performance by 13-year-old Yui Wago, who uses a wheelchair and has upper and lower limb disorder.
Organizers hope the Tokyo Paralympics will contribute to building a more inclusive society that embraces people's differences.
However, as with the Olympic opening ceremony a month earlier, a number of protesters gathered outside the stadium, chanting slogans such as "Stop the Paralympics." Health experts and officials have begun labeling the current COVID-19 situation in Japan as at a "disaster level."
Three Japanese athletes in wheelchairs -- boccia player Shunsuke Uchida, powerlifter Karin Morisaki and wheelchair tennis player Yui Kamiji -- carried the Paralympic flame on the final leg of the torch relay before igniting the sphere-shaped cauldron, fueled by hydrogen and using the sun as a motif, inside the stadium.
While the 17-day Olympics ended without a major outbreak of infections among athletes and officials, some Paralympians may have a higher risk of suffering more serious symptoms due to possible underlying health conditions.
"Thank you for your hard work, dedication and perseverance in the face of the pandemic's many challenges to gather here in Tokyo," said Seiko Hashimoto, president of the organizing committee, before a speech by IPC President Andrew Parsons.
"Para athletes testify to our infinite potential as human beings, and to our power to go beyond our limits," Hashimoto said. "Please give us hope and the strength to stand tall as we witness all you have overcome to reach this stage."
The six-member Refugee Paralympic Team, comprising competitors in athletics, swimming, canoe sprint and taekwondo, marched first in the parade of nations, while host Japan was last into the stadium, led by triathlete Mami Tani and table tennis player Koyo Iwabuchi.
With 254 athletes, Japan has the biggest team at the games, nearly double the size of its delegation at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
In an acknowledgement of the challenges posed by the pandemic, the Paralympic flag was raised at the ceremony after being carried by essential workers battling on the frontline in Japan.
Still, the public is divided about whether it is appropriate to hold a major international event under current circumstances, especially given Tokyo and three nearby prefectures where Paralympic venues are located are all now reeling from record numbers of daily COVID-19 cases and are still under a state of emergency.
The Japanese organizers and the IPC decided earlier this month to stage events behind closed doors at all venues, except for students involved in a government-supported educational initiative.
While the games were expected to welcome up to about 172,000 students, mainly from schools in Tokyo, some municipalities decided at the last minute not to participate.
The capital's education board said it now expects only about 20,000 students to attend competitions in person, despite saying earlier that nearly 140,000 were planned to be in the stands.
Tokyo's daily infection figure has been regularly over 5,000 since the Olympics, roughly three times higher than seen before the games started on July 23.
Japan's medical system is under immense pressure, while the number of people recuperating at home has been rising at a fast pace amid a shortage of hospital beds.
Due to the impact of the pandemic, athletes from Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu were unable to travel to Japan, putting the total number of participating nations and regions below the record of 164 set at the 2012 London Games.
Under the COVID-19 "playbook" that must be followed by athletes, participants are required to be tested on a daily basis, in principle, and they must wear face masks and maintain social distancing including when in the athletes' village.