A general view of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, August 29, 2012. (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)

By Tom Pilcher

LONDON, Aug 29 (Reuters) – Wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking and South Africa’s ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius were among the luminaries on hand for the opening on Wednesday night of the biggest Paralympics in the 11-day competition’s history.

Hard on the heels of the hard-act-to-follow London 2012 Olympics, the Paralympics got off to a rousing start with dancers, fireworks and near sold-out ticket sales for competitions to be held in the same Olympics park venues.

Hawking, diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 and told in 1963 he had two years to live, began the ceremony by reading from the stage.

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Be curious,” Hawking said from his wheelchair, speaking through his famous computerized voice system for communication.

The London Paralympics will host the highest number of athletes since their official birth in 1960 at the Rome Games, with 4,280 athletes representing over 160 nations compared to 400 participants from 23 countries in the Italian capital.

Pistorius, who became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics earlier this month, told a news conference ahead of the Paralympics he had seen a “shift” in interest towards disabled sport.

The rising interest has been reflected in ticket sales, 2.4 million of the available 2.5 million have been sold, a record number while the remaining 100,000 will be released in batches of 10,000 each day.

Over 50 percent of the tickets were 10 pounds ($15.83) or less, added Olympic and Paralympic organizers LOCOG.

“Up to 2004 I didn’t know much about Paralympics. The biggest turnout we had was maybe 20,000. Usually around 7,000 a day,” said Pistorius, who runs using carbon-fibre prosthetic blades after he was born without a fibula in both legs.

“The UK deal with disability in a really amazing way. There are a lot of people who don’t focus on the disability anymore, they focus on the athletes’ abilities. They’re treated as elite sportsmen and women,” the 25-year-old Pistorious added.

In scenes like those which gripped the world during the July 27 opening extravaganza at the Olympic Stadium in east London, a similarly inspiring and breathtaking show left the 80,000 fans and millions of TV viewers breathless from the start.

The Paralympics were conceived at the 1948 London Olympics by German neurologist Ludwig Guttmann, who had opened a spinal injuries center at Stoke Mandeville in England for injured World War Two soldiers.

On the day of the opening ceremony in 1948, Guttmann held the first archery competition for wheelchair athletes.

Those competing in London this time round believe the ‘homecoming’ will be incredible.

“I think London is going to be the tipping point. I think London will take the Paralympics to a point where it has never been before,” American single amputee sprinter Jerome Singleton, who did not know about the Paralympics until 2006, told Reuters.