China claimed the first gold medal of the 2012 Paralympics, as the Games got under way in London on Thursday in front of big crowds.
The first gold went to Cuiping Zhang in a women’s air rifle shooting event. Another quickly followed for China in the men’s C1-2-3 1-kilometer cycling time trial, as Li Zhang Yu swooped around the velodrome in record-breaking time.
There are 503 gold medals to be won in the course of the 11-day competition, for which more than 4,000 athletes have descended on London from more than 160 countries.
On Thursday alone, 32 gold medals are up for grabs across five different sports.
Back in the velodrome, Susan Powell took Australia’s first gold in the women’s individual C4 pursuit, while Kieran Modra took its second in the men’s individual B pursuit.
And the home crowds cheered on British cyclist Sarah Storey as she won the first gold of the Games for the host nation. The win in the women’s individual C5 pursuit cycling brought her total Paralympic medal haul to eight.
Storey, who was born without a left hand but is also a champion swimmer, narrowly missed out on being selected for the women’s team pursuit at the London 2012 Olympics.
Over at the Aquatic Centre, American Jessica Long won the women’s 100-meter butterfly S8 with a personal best time to give Team USA its first gold of the Games.
But Team USA suffered a blow when authorities confirmed that one of its big medal hopes, swimmer Mallory Weggemann, was being reclassified from S7 to S8.
The classification system, designed to make sure athletes in each sport compete against similarly abled rivals, is central to how the Games work.
Weggeman, who was paralyzed from the waist down as a college freshman by an injection to treat back pain, must now compete in fewer races and against stiffer competition. She currently holds 15 world records and more than 30 American records, according to her blog.
Paralympic records were broken on the archery range Thursday, as well as in the velodrome and the pool.
The first day of competition followed an opening ceremony Wednesday night that was watched by millions of people around the world and was warmly received by the British media.
Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Games but did not repeat the apparent feat of rappelling down from a helicopter that delighted those who watched the Olympics opening ceremony.
She was accompanied to the event by Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, but not Prince Harry, who was recently caught up in a scandal involving pictures taken of him naked in Las Vegas.
Sebastian Coe, chairman of the organizing committee, said: “The enthusiasm for these Paralympics is extraordinary. The crowds will be unprecedented. These will be Games to remember.
“Prepare to be inspired. Prepare to be dazzled. Prepare to be moved by the Paralympic Games of London 2012.”
More than 2.3 million tickets have been sold for the Paralympics in London, more than for any of the previous 13 Paralympic Games.