In what must rank among the more metaphysical openings to a sporting event, Stephen Hawking kicked off the Paralympic Games in London last night by ruminating on the origins of the universe.
“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world—why it is as it is, and why it exists at all,” the quadriplegic British theoretical physicist intoned, as vaguely celestial music jingled over the PA in a darkened stadium. “But even if we do find a complete theory of everything, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations, and makes a universe for them to describe?”
Things did not get less awesome or less bizarre from there. Before the ceremony was over, the 80,000 attendees were treated to a pyrotechnic Big Bang re-enactment, Sir Ian McKellen in the role of Prospero from The Tempest, a former commando who lost both legs in Afghanistan flying in with the Paralympic torch via zipline, and a Rihanna dance party featuring the obligatory people floating down from the sky while holding umbrellas, Mary Poppins style. The Telegraph compared the whole spectacle to “a giant prog rock gig.” (See the video below for highlights.)
The event has been widely heralded in the U.K. press as a fittingly grand and inspiring opening to the largest Paralympics yet. This year’s games will include some 4,200 athletes from 164 countries, and organizers say they’ve sold a staggering 2.4 million tickets.
But the ceremony—titled “Enlightenment”—was also noteworthy for the parallels it drew between sports and scientific progress. In a games whose biggest star is “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, it was appropriate that Hawking led the audience on a “voyage through time” focused on scientific discoveries, from Newton and his apple to the Higgs boson. (At one point the entire stadium morphed into a representation of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.)
Science today is challenging the foundations of sport itself, from the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs to the advent of artificial limbs that have the potential to propel runners like Pistorius more swiftly than the organic variety.
The subtext of last night’s Paralympics ceremony was that society should embrace this progress. “Shine your light on the beautiful diversity of humanity,” McKellen said, in a line that would not have been out of place in one of his X-Men movies. Hawking urged, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
London organizing committee chair Sebastian Coe added, “Sport is about what you can do, what you can achieve, the limits you can reach, the barriers you can break.”
It will be fascinating to see what barriers Pistorius and others can break this summer and in the years to come.