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Australia leads the way at Sochi Paralympics

Paralympics, Australia
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The Australian team kicked off their Paralympic campaign in front of thousands of cheering people at Friday night’s opening ceremony in Sochi.

Australia was the first nation to march the circumference of Fisht Olympic Stadium, led by flag-bearer and Vancouver dual bronze medallist Cameron Rahles-Rahbula.

It’s unlikely Rahles-Rahbula will get a chance to actually compete in his fourth and final Games after sustaining serious leg injuries in training this week.

But the 30-year-old, who also carried the flag in Vancouver 2010’s closing ceremony, wasn’t letting disappointment get in the way of the honour.

“It’s very exciting to lead Australia on the world stage,” Rahles-Rahbula, who walked on crutches, said before the ceremony.

“Tonight is just about supporting my team.”

Fellow standing skiers Mitchell Gourley, Toby Kane and vision-impaired Melissa Perrine sat out the ceremony to rest before their downhill event on Saturday, as did head coach Steve Graham and assistant coach, legendary Paralympian Michael Milton.

“@AUSParalympics entering, proud to be part of this team #ProudParalympian,” tweeted Kane as he watched on TV.

And for the skiers, snowboarders, coaches and staff who were present, it was indeed a night of pride.

Over navy blue jackets they wore black armbands to remember their teammate Matt Robinson, who died two weeks ago after a race accident at the IPC Snowboarding World Cup finals in Spain.

Robinson’s disability class isn’t included in the Sochi program, but the 28-year-old had developed a close bond with the squad, in particular the snowboarders Trent Milton, Joany Badenhorst and 14-year-old Ben Tudhope.

He was also a close friend of snowboarding coach Peter Higgins.

As Ukraine marched out the stadium crowd erupted into cheers and a standing ovation.

The Ukrainian Paralympic Committee announced only hours before the ceremony they would not boycott the Games over Russia’s intervention in the Crimean peninsula.

But while the country’s team of 23 athletes and eight sighted guides will compete, only flag-bearer Mykhaylo Tkachenko was in the stadium.

The ceremony had a theme of “Breaking the Ice”, described by organisers as a joyous celebration that portrayed “the importance of breaking down the barriers and stereotypes faced by people around the world every day.”

The message may be at odds with the country’s stance on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community but so vibrant was the colour it would have put Sydney’s Mardi Gras to shame.

A choir of hundreds sang the Russian national anthem dressed in the traditional embroidered colours of each province.

Snow fell indoors as a chorus of ballet dancers gracefully tip-toed to the Nutcracker Suite’s Sugar Plum Fairy, which was played on the rims of 36 crystal glasses.

Bright orange “firebirds” circled above while acrobats flipped inside giant translucent spheres.

Later, a huge icebreaker ship metaphorically “traced new paths for mankind”.

Around 575 athletes from 45 countries will compete in the Paralympics, beginning on Saturday.