BEIJING, China — The Winter Paralympics opened Friday in Beijing with the Russian athletes sent home and the Ukrainian team escaping a war zone to get to China.
A Ukrainian team member in a wheelchair carried the country's now widely known blue and yellow flag at the head of a 20-person delegation entering the Bird’s Nest. Chinese President Xi Jinping, wearing a red face mask to protect against the coronavirus, attended the opening.
“It’s a miracle that we have made it to the Paralympics,” Ukrainian delegation head Valerii Sushkevych said earlier.
Paralympic organizers initially announced that Russians and Belarusians would be allowed to compete in Beijing, but reversed course one day before the opening and expelled athletes from both countries. They cited tensions in the Athletes Village.
Sushkevych said it took four days for team members in Ukraine to reach Beijing. He said he slept on the floor of a bus because of a back condition during the last two days of the journey through Europe.
“We overcame a lot of barriers on the way,” he said. “Many members of our team had to escape while there was bombardment and shells exploding.”
About 564 athletes, of which 138 are women, are competing in the Paralympics. China has the largest team, with 96 competitors, followed by the United States with 65. The Paralympics includes six sports: Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, hockey, snowboarding and curling.
"Much work still needs to be done to achieve gender parity but having increased female participation significantly at the Winter Games in the last 20 years shows we are heading in the right direction,” International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons said.
The 10-day Paralympics closes on March 13.