The stadiums may be mostly empty but passionate fans and the enthusiastic Brazilian hosts insisted Thursday that the Rio Paralympics are off to a good start.
Only a smattering of seats were taken at the 60,000-capacity Engenhao stadium for the beginning of track and field events in South America’s first Paralympics.
The judo and table tennis arenas at the Olympic Park were both only about one-quarter full, although turnout was much better at the swimming center, where Brazilian Paralympic star Daniel Dias — winner of six gold medals in London 2012 — was competing.
At the Olympic Park, the main hub for the Paralympics and the Olympics which Rio hosted in August, volunteer Liliam Lima, 65, said the crowds were “much smaller than on the first day of the Olympics.”
“Then it was more than twice as many people, maybe three or four times more,” she said, adding that she expects attendance to peak this weekend.
When a staff member took the microphone during a break at the table tennis arena to ask who in the crowd would like a gift of an autographed ping pong ball, he didn’t seem to realize at first that nearly everyone had already left — there was no one to give the ball to.
But where numbers lacked, enthusiasm filled the gap.
About 100 Brazilians chanting “Brazil, Brazil!” and singing samba choruses at the table tennis venue made the place feel anything but empty.
And Thabiso Ratsoane, a track coach from Lesotho, did his bit for the noise levels at the Engenhao, screaming encouragement every time one of his athletes took to the track.
Organizers say they aren’t worried.
A joyful, dramatic and even sensuous opening ceremony played to a sold-out Maracana stadium on Wednesday night. Organizers say that while there was deep concern a few weeks ago about unsold tickets, they are now on track for healthy attendance figures.
“At this point we are very happy about the fact that the park is full of school-aged kids coming here to have a magical experience,” spokesman Mario Andrada told journalists, putting latest ticket sales at 1.7 million.
Rio de Janeiro, like Brazil in general, is hardly wheelchair-friendly, so the Games are seen here as a chance to transform attitudes.
“The main legacy of these Games is certainly to convince the Brazilian society that we need more inclusion, we need more accessibility and we need to understand our differences, remembering always that everybody has the same heart,” Andrada said.
“I think the opening ceremony went in that direction spot-on. We could see people worried, we could see people crying, we could see people rethinking about these issues.”
Jadir Antunes, who lost both legs in a car accident when he was six, said that access on public transport to the Olympic Park, where he was watching basketball, was excellent — but that Rio still has a long way to go.
“It has been very good, well organized,” Antunes, 49, said, wheeling himself along.
“But in Rio, things need to be a lot better. The pavements are broken, the buses have broken wheelchair lifts half of the time and the metro elevators often break and the people who operate them are not trained properly,” he said.
Paul Eduardo Paggiossi, 54, a government employee from Sao Paulo state, also praised the free wheelchair service offered at the Olympic Park for visitors like his 13-year-old daughter Maria-Eduarda, who has been unable to walk properly since birth.
“There was no cost for the chair and it’s all working well,” he said, pushing Maria-Eduarda toward the swimming pool arena. “But it’s only the first day. Let’s hope it works well. For someone with low mobility, 100 meters is like 10 kilometers. A person has to struggle a lot.”