Updated at 14:52,24-02-2021

Paralympics: Belarus stages pro-Russia protest during opening ceremony

Jacob Steinberg in Rio de Janeiro, The Guardian

Athletes supported Russia, banned from Games due to doping allegations, by carrying country’s flag during procession

The colour, noise and goodwill on show during the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games was punctured when the Belarus team mounted a protest against the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia from Rio 2016.

Sir Philip Craven, the president of the IPC, had earlier strongly defended the Russian Paralympic Committee’s total exclusion from the Paralympics, arguing that evidence of state-sponsored doping was effectively an attempt by Russia to legalise cheating for the benefit of their athletes. However, Belarus defied the IPC and risked sanctions by carrying a Russian flag into the Maracanã stadium during the parade of athletes. The flag was later confiscated and the IPC is understood to be considering how to proceed.

At the opening ceremony, a magnificent display of fireworks were set off on the roof of the stadium, leading in to samba music and groups of singers and musicians in the middle of the arena.

The creative directors, Vik Muniz, Fred Gelli and Marcelo Rubens Paiva, and the artistic director, Paula Mello, wanted to conjure a vision of a world in which disabled people are treated with equality.

Wheelchairs were an integral part of the evening, with a tribute made in the form of a Samba circle. The highlight came early on, when Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham, an extreme wheelchair athlete from Las Vegas, rode down a slide at high speed as fireworks exploded either side of him, soared through a hole and took the breath away with an astonishing mid-air somersault.

There was beauty, too, and it was impossible not to be moved by an immaculate performance of the Brazilian national anthem by João Carlos Martins, a classical pianist who received a huge ovation as the performers on the stage came together to form a Brazilian flag, while the biggest cheer of the evening came when the home team emerged.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday morning, Craven said that the IPC board was unanimous in its verdict against Russia and revealed that he had received messages of support from members of the International Olympic Committee for the tough stance his organisation has taken against doping. The president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, was not present in Rio after attending a memorial service for a friend in Germany. Craven insisted that his relationship with Bach remained strong despite the IOC deciding not to give Russia an outright ban from the Olympics.

On a night that was supposed to spread unity after the financial problems that have threatened to halt the huge advances made in disability sport since London 2012, there was mutiny from Belarus. That was not a total surprise given that the head of the Belarusian Paralympic Committee, Oleg Shepel, was reported to have said that he wanted to show solidarity with the 267 banned Russian athletes last month – and so it proved.

The IPC was not amused by the appearance of the Russian flag. Its decision to issue a total ban was vindicated when the court of arbitration of sport dismissed the RPC’s appeal against its suspension last month.

Paralympics: Belarus stages pro-Russia protest during opening ceremony

A member of the Belarus team carries a Russian flag. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

While the show of defiance from Belarus took attention away from the spectacle of the opening ceremony, at least the IPC and the Rio 2016 organising committee could take encouragement from the way that locals embraced the Paralympic spirit on Brazilian Independence Day, even though the stadium only looked about three quarters full.

Craven warned last month that major budget cuts had created the most challenging circumstances in the 56-year history of the Paralympics. Yet ticket sales have picked up in the past fortnight and the IPC is optimistic that Rio will host a successful Games despite the cutbacks, ensuring that the legacy laid down in London four years ago will not go to waste.

From a British perspective, there is a firm belief that ParalympicsGB will reach the target of 121 medals and enjoy their most successful Games. The British flag was carried by the 10-time Paralympic equestrian champion, Lee Pearson.