SPECTACULAR fireworks, superstar performances and striking special effects left crowds in awe at the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Games opening ceremony at Hunter Stadium on Sunday night.
As impressive as it all was, though, nothing could have topped the moment when the excited and beaming faces of about 2300 athletes and their coaches marched out into the arena to represent their countries.
The parade of nations was their time to shine in the spotlight – and with rapturous applause from almost 20,000 people they embraced it wholeheartedly with huge smiles and an evident sense of pride.
These Games are as much about competing in sport as they are about empowering those with intellectual disability to meet new people, gain leadership skills and show they have many abilities.
Attracting athletes from 29 nations, the games are the first to be held for the Asia-Pacific region and have opened up a new world to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Participating countries include Cambodia, Mongolia and the Philippines – which was only recently been ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan.
Afghanistan had to withdraw from the Games at the last minute because visas into Australia could not be organised in time.
Since it was announced last year that Newcastle had won the bid to host the Games, organisers and volunteers have been working around the clock to co-ordinate the week-long event.
Games organising committee chairman John Trevillian dubbed the night a success and said it put Newcastle on the map.
‘‘Before they went to march out on to the grounds the participants were saying they were ‘pumped’ for this and I thought that was just great,’’ he said.
‘‘All attention is on them, it’s all been done for them – they are on national television and walking into Hunter Stadium where some of their favourite athletes have played before.
‘‘Looking back on the success of the ceremony, it’s a big springboard on the sport that’s going to occur over the next week and this puts Australia and Newcastle on the map as a place that supports and cares about those with intellectual disability.’’
It was a star-studded affair with a line-up that included big names such as Human Nature, Marina Prior, Marcia Hines and Iva Davies – who performed Aussie classic Great Southern Land.
The Combined Special Olympics Dancers stole the show with their enthusiastic co-ordinated dancing.
Keeping with the theme of what the games are about, a moving performance took place when musical talent and creative director John Foreman played a piano duet with a man named Stewart Abbott.
Stewart has autism and his only way of communicating is through music.
His face lit up at the chance of sharing how he felt with thousands of other people.
Another person making his family proud on the night was Caleb Smith, who hails from Newcastle and has autism.
His father, Jeffrey, and sister Jessica Pickard had seats up front, ready to hear him make the opening speech that welcomed everyone to Newcastle.
‘‘He told me it was a fairytale,’’ Jessica said.
“I’m very proud – our mum passed away when we were kids.
‘‘It’s fantastic that he has the opportunity to do this.’’
The games were officially opened with the lighting of the cauldron by Hunter Valley athlete Geoffrey Kirby, who was handed the torch by Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.