China is following its successful hosting of the Olympics with a lower-key opening ceremony for the Paralympics, an international sporting event for handicapped athletes, that runs until September 17.  Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing.         

Chinese President Hu Jintao officially declared that the Paralympic games had begun.

The opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics involved a lavish and elaborate performance that presented thousands of years of Chinese history.

In contrast, the opening ceremony for the Paralympics was mostly about the athletes.

Four thousand physically-disabled athletes from around the world entered the Bird's Nest stadium, either on foot or in a wheelchair.

Chinese women in bright pink frilly dresses led each of the 146 national delegations.  Groups of young Chinese dancers, dressed in blue shorts and white baseball caps, danced to the music and waved red flags.

The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Craven, praised these games as a Paralympic milestone.

"These games will have more athletes, more competing nations and more sporting events than ever before," he said.

Earlier in the day, President Hu hosted visiting dignitaries for lunch in the Great Hall of the People.

President Hu says the Beijing Paralympic games are an opportunity for China to further promote a humanitarian spirit and safeguard the rights of disabled people.

One notable name on the guest list was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who shook hands and posed for pictures with the Chinese president.

In Beijing Saturday, residents watched the Paralympic torch make its way through the city to the stadium.

Chinese state television showed excited spectators waving flags and cheering for the torch.

One spectator told CCTV that just as the Olympics have improved China's position in the world, he is hopeful the Paralympics will enhance China's position as a powerful sports country too.

There are 20 sports under competition during the Summer Paralympics.  These include swimming, sailing and judo, as well as things like wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis and wheelchair rugby.

The first day of competition is Sunday, and athletes will use many of the same venues that were featured in the Olympics.