The Beijing Paralympics opened Friday night at the Chinese capital's National Stadium, with the war in Ukraine casting a shadow over the world's largest winter sports event for athletes with disabilities.

Athletes from the Russian Paralympic Committee and Belarus were excluded from the Games after tensions escalated in the Games' villages ahead of the opening ceremony, with many athletes and teams refusing to take the field of play alongside athletes from the two nations.

The International Paralympic Committee said Thursday it will decline athlete entries from Russia and Belarus in an about-face on its previous decision to allow them to compete as neutrals under the Paralympic flag.

Participating athletes wearing face masks entered the stadium, with the coronavirus pandemic remaining a major concern in Beijing and elsewhere.

Ukraine's team entered to cheers and applause across the stadium. The delegation went through a long and difficult journey to get to the Games, some from a training camp in Italy while others having to cross Ukraine's borders.

Beijing is the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, with the stadium known as the "Bird's Nest" hosting the opening ceremonies on each occasion.

Russian aggression has cast a shadow over previous Games.

Russia invaded Georgia during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine around the time the Sochi Paralympics were held in Russia in 2014. The Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine is its third breach of the Olympic Truce.

"I declare open the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games," Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the ceremony.

During the next nine days, more than 560 disabled athletes from 46 countries and regions are expected to take part in 78 medal events across six sports during the Winter Games through March 13.

The sports will be contested across the three competition zones in Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou within a strict "closed loop," which separates people involved with the Games from the general public to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons speaks during the opening ceremony Friday. | Reuters
International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons speaks during the opening ceremony Friday. | Reuters

The Japan national team, featuring 29 athletes, will compete in four sports — Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. It will not compete in sled hockey and wheelchair curling.

Among the 29, standing cross-country skier Taiki Kawayoke, 21, a medal hopeful in the men's classical event, carried the national flag for the Japanese team.

Compatriot Yoshihiro Nitta, the 41-year-old Pyeongchang Paralympic gold medalist in the middle distance classical standing, will also be in the mix for medals.

"I am focused on delivering my best performance," Nitta said prior to the opening of the Games.

Sit Alpine skier Momoka Muraoka, 25, who won five medals including one gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics, is expected to again bring a haul of medals for Japan in Beijing, where she will stare down a stiff challenge from German rival Anna-Lena Forster.

"I will ski with full force and smile through the final day of competition," said Muraoka, who is also the captain of the Japanese Paralympic team.

In snowboarding, Daichi Oguri, 41, Masataka Oiwane, 41, and several others are believed to have a good chance to grab medals.

Keiichi Sato, 42, and Momoko Dekijima, 47, are expected to be in the medal hunt in biathlon.

"I believe in the potential of our athletes. We will prepare an environment where athletes can deliver their best performances based on teamwork and adaptability," said Japan's Chef de Mission Junichi Kawai prior to the opening ceremony.

Countries like the United States, Britain and Japan have chosen not to send official government representatives to China as part of a stand their countries have taken in protest of the host nation's human rights abuses, particularly against the Uyghur Muslim population in the country's northwestern Xinjiang region.