Paralympics open in Vancouver

VANCOUVER: Spectators roared as the Paralympic cauldron flared to light in this western Canadian city, marking the start of the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.

On Saturday more than 500 athletes with disabilities from 45 countries will start competing in alpine skiing, biathlon and cross-country skiing, wheelchair curling and ice sledge hockey.

"I declare these Paralympics open, the first ever in Canada," said Governor General Michaelle Jean.

"These games are going to be fantastic," Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee, told reporters earlier as 35,000 fans began lining up to attend a sold-out opening ceremony that featured some 5,000 performers.

The games, held in Vancouver and in the nearby ski resort of Whistler, began less than two weeks after the Winter Olympics ended here on February 28.

"We are one country. Sport is our common language," said John Furlong, chief executive of the Olympic and Paralympic Vancouver Organizing Committee.

"Because so many in the world live in harmís way, our message through sport has never been more important. To the Paralympic athletes of the world, the best ever, may the days ahead be exhilarating."

While the official name of the games refers to being "parallel" to the Olympics, the event has some major differences.

Paralympic competitors will number about one-third of the total of those who competed in the Olympics.

Compared to the 10,000-strong army of international media who covered the Olympics, Paralympics organizers expected only some 600 journalists to attend.

And while Paralympian winners will receive gold, silver and bronze medals, they will not be awarded the cash prizes enjoyed by Olympic medalists.

Asked about the differences between the games, Craven said, "The essence of sport is important here. And I think there are far more similarities than there are differences."

The games are beginning under cloudy skies and crisp winter temperatures, with so much new snow and low visibility in the mountains that some training runs were cancelled this week.