Athletes light the Paralympic cauldron during the opening ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
Paralympic Games kick off with vibrant Opening Ceremony
02:11 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Australian cyclist Paige Greco won the first gold of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics on Wednesday with the Games, delayed by a year due to the pandemic, finally underway as new coronavirus cases surge in Japan’s capital.

Greco crossed the line first in the women’s C1-3 3,000 meters individual pursuit at the Izu Velodrome ahead of silver medalist Xiaomei Wang from China. Germany’s Denise Schindler clinched bronze.

Among the dozens of medal events Wednesday, 16 golds are up for grabs in swimming.

Speaking after qualifying for the men’s 400 meters freestyle final on Wednesday afternoon in Japan, Australian swimmer Alexander Tuckfield said getting into the pool after the long postponement felt like having a “weight lifted from my shoulders.”

“Five years of just training, training and training for this competition,” Tuckfield said.

Australia's Paige Greco claims gold at the Izu Velodrome on August 25, 2021.

The wheelchair basketball and goalball competitions also began on Wednesday, with China’s women’s basketball team beating Algeria 74-25 and the Netherlands defeating Team USA 68-58.

Medal events in wheelchair fencing are scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in Japan.

The 2020 Paralympics kicked off with a colorful and celebratory opening ceremony Tuesday night, including a parade of the participating nations led by the six-member Paralympic Refugee Team.

One volunteer carried the Afghanistan flag, in honor of Afghan athletes unable to compete in the Games after flights out of the country were canceled after the Taliban seized power.

Speaking on Wednesday, IPC spokesman Craig Spence said two Paralympians from Afghanistan had managed to flee the country.

“I’m not going to tell you where they are, because this isn’t about sports, this is about human life and keeping people safe,” he said. “They are now in a safe place. They have been through a very traumatic process, and they are undergoing counseling and psychological health tests.”

Maryam Salehizadeh and Meghan Mahon of Canada in action during a goalball match with the Russian Olympic Committee on  August 25 in Chiba, Japan.

Not every country attended the opening ceremony: New Zealand’s Paralympic team did not take part due to concerns over the spread of Covid-19.

Japan has seen record coronavirus cases in recent months, with more than 21,000 infections and 42 deaths nationwide reported Tuesday.

Tokyo confirmed 4,220 new cases on Tuesday, taking the total number of infections in August to over 100,000 – the first time a monthly tally has crested 100,000 cases. Last week, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said the situation was a “disaster-level” emergency.

According to the Prime Minister’s office, just over 40% of Japan’s population has been fully vaccinated as of August 22.

The Japanese government is set to decide Wednesday on expanding a state of emergency for Tokyo and 12 other regions to eight more prefectures, according to public broadcaster NHK.

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics are being held almost entirely without spectators to curb the spread of the virus. Plans to allow some schoolchildren to attend events were canceled in some parts of the country due to the spread of the virus, Tokyo 2020 spokesman Takaya Masa said Wednesday.

At least eight Paralympic athletes have tested positive for Covid-19 since August 12, according to the IPC, as well as 33 Games-related personnel.

CNN’s Emiko Jozuka in Tokyo contributed reporting.