A sell-out crowd of 87,000 people watched the opening ceremony of the XI Paralympics in Sydney earlier today. Despite grey skies overhead at the Olympic Stadium, everyone was in a party mood, none more so that the 4,000 athletes with various disabilities from 125 countries all over the world who participated in the parade. This year's Paralympics is the biggest ever. In Atlanta, only 104 countries sent athletes to the event which has now overtaken the Winter Olympics in size and popularity. Over 800,000 tickets have been sold so far, 200,000 more than was expected and according to New South Wales police chief, Commissioner Peter Ryan, the event will be the fourth-largest peacetime event ever in the world - even bigger than the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles.

The biggest cheer on a cool and wet night was reserved for the huge Australian contingent, who - on becoming the final team to enter the stadium - were given an emotional standing ovation by the home supporters. It was almost like a closing ceremony party as many of the home nation's squad danced round the track to the strains of a medley of Australian pop songs including Men At Work's hit `Down Under'.

The 4000 sportsmen and women representing the 125 countries taking part witnessed Australian Governor General Sir William Deane declare the Games open after a spectacular fly past by an F1-11 aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force trailing a tail of fire from its afterburner. He was joined in the dignitaries' box by President of the International Paralympic Committee Dr Robert Steadward and his International Olympic Committee counterpart Juan Antonio Samaranch. After Dr Steadward had welcomed the athletes to Sydney, he paid tribute to the thousands of volunteers who have helped in both these Games and the Olympics.

Following the formal speeches the Paralympic flag was carried around the stadium by members of Australia's Armed Forces before the Paralympic torch was brought into the stadium by dual Paralympic gold medallist Katrina Webb. The torch was then taken in relay round the track before being handed to Australian wheelchair athlete and Paralympic icon Loise Sauvage, who ignited a special cauldron in the centre of the track which in turn lit the Paralympic flame amid an explosion of fireworks high above the stadium which signalled the start of the Games. That, however, was not the end of proceedings as the athletes and crowds were treated to an entertainment package from a host of Australian pop stars including Kylie Minogue, aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, Vanessa Amarossi and Christine Anu.

The first competitive events get underway tomorrow and many expect that new technologicial inventions combined with the extent of the crowds expected to attend this year's Games will lead to a number of world records being broken. However, more seriously, these Paralympics will see the first time that random drug testing will be carried out in the Games. Ireland has 39 athletes at the Sydney Games but only of those will be in action tomorrow - Tim Culhane will be participating in the Men's Half-Lightweight (Up to 66kg) judo competition.

Filed by Amanda Fennelly