Tributes to 'inspiration' Hawking as curtain falls on Paralympics

Sam Reeves
AFP

The Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics closed Sunday with a dazzling ceremony featuring light shows, dancing and music, as well as tributes to late wheelchair-bound British physicist Stephen Hawking as an "inspiration".

Nine days of sporting action ended earlier in the day with a flurry of events, including victory for the United States in a hard-fought sledge hockey final, helping them to top the medals table with 36 overall.

North Korea's athletes, who made their country's Winter Paralympics debut in Pyeongchang, were absent from the closing ceremony after heading home early, but it was a minor sticking point after the rapid inter-Korean thaw of recent weeks.

With thousands packing out the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons used his closing address to pay tribute to Hawking, who died last week aged 76.

The scientist is seen as an inspiration by Paralympians. He never let his acute physical disability stop him from pursuing his dreams, and is fondly remembered for opening the London 2012 Games.

Parsons hailed him as "a genius of a man, a pioneer and inspiration to us all".

"While Hawking tested the limits of his imagination, Paralympians, you have once again pushed the boundaries of human endeavour," he said.

"Your logic-defying performances have focused the world not on what holds you back, but on what motivates you and pushes you forward."

Hawking developed a form of motor neurone disease in his 20s that left him confined to a wheelchair, almost completely paralysed and only able to speak through a voice synthesiser.

But his disability did not stop him pursuing his ambition of unlocking the secrets of the Universe, and his best-selling book "A Brief History of Time" made him a household name.

In a memorable speech at the opening of the 2012 Games, Hawking urged Paralympians to "look up at the stars and not down at your feet".

- Triumph over adversity -

Athletes carried their countries' flags into the stadium at the closing ceremony but North Korea's was brought in by a Games volunteer, after Pyongyang's delegation headed home a few days ago.

Pyongyang sent two novice sit-skiers to the Games and they finished at or near the back of their two events, but were still welcomed by South Korean fans delighted at the latest sign of detente on the Korean peninsula.

The rapprochement began at last month's Winter Olympics, when the North sent 22 athletes to the Games and the two Koreas marched under a united flag at the opening ceremony.

The North's presence at the Paralympics was low-key compared to the Olympics -- as well as leaving before the end, the North did not march with the South at the opening.

Sunday's closing ceremony included traditional Korean music and dancing, and also modern rock and pop, with K-pop star Ailee among the performers.

There were also disabled performers, including a dancer with a hearing impairment and a wheelchair-bound dancer.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the Paralympic flag was hauled down and handed to the mayor of Beijing -- which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

In a fitting finale to the Games' high-octane sporting action, the USA earlier Sunday beat Canada 2-1 with a dramatic goal in overtime to defend their Paralympic sledge hockey title.

It brought Team USA's gold medal haul to 13.

Russian athletes -- competing as neutrals after their country was banned due to a doping scandal -- picked up eight gold medals, second-highest after the USA and tied with Canada.

The Winter Paralympics broke records for ticket sales, which topped 340,000, as well as for the number of athletes competing at 567.

There were numerous tales of triumph over adversity.

Dutch snowboarder Bibian Mentel-Spee won two gold medals despite having had cancer surgery twice in recent months. American skier Oksana Masters -- born with multiple birth defects due to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster -- also won double gold.

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