Triumph of the Human Spirit - 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games
By Cara Yates and Kim King
To most, the scene is strikingly familiar. Throngs of rapt spectators overflow an enormous stadium as uniform clad athletes parade before them smiling, tossing hats, and waving flags. A torch is passed. A flame is kindled. A political leader declares the event "Open". Bands play. Celebrities deliver speeches that laud the athletes' accomplishments. Athletes mingle and exchange pins. Dozens of dialects waft by on air that crackles with nervous anticipation.
exuberant ceremony is followed by ten days of breathtaking sport competition as
the world's best athletes put their skills against one another. They may all
derive from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds but it is their
similarities, which bind them. They
have dedicated their lives to a chosen sport.
Years of commitment, coaching, qualification and anticipation have
culminated in this once-in-a-lifetime chance to show their stuff.
will set world records and smile for eager cameras.
Others will set personal records and return home unmedaled yet fully
satisfied. Those who fall short of
their expectations will shed bitter tears.
Those who win will shed tears of unimaginable joy as they brandish
victors' bouquets and revel in the playing of their national anthems.
And when it is all over, there will be a few more names in the annuals of
world history that will never be forgotten.
may not be so familiar about this event was the rock climber who, without legs,
climbed eight vertical stories to light the Olympic flame. Even more unfamiliar was the image of the high jumper, a
double below the knee-amputee, successfully clearing 6-3. Or, the runner who hopped across the finish line clutching
the leg that had disengaged itself during his race.
are reminiscences of the blind javelin thrower who strides and hurls with as
much coordination and accuracy as any sighted competitor. Tandem bicycles swish and swerve up and down the velodrome, a
250-meter steeply banked bicycle track with corners banked at 43 degrees, locked
in the sprinters cat-and-mouse antics, reaching speeds up to 50 miles an hour,
each with one sighted, one blind racer.
Olympic Games were declared "closed" on July 31, 1996, however, 3,500
athletes from 122 countries were still awaiting their chance to make the impact
of a lifetime. Athletes who happen
to have cerebral palsy, visual impairments and amputations, as well as dwarf and
wheelchair competitors, gathered to celebrate the 1996 Paralympic Games and to
salute the triumph of the human spirit, as the Paralympic motto states. The
Paralympic Games were declared "open" on August 15,1996, marking the
Xth Paralympiad and becoming the world's second largest sporting event,
surpassed only by the Olympic Games. The
1996 Paralympics drew 2,088 media representatives, was staffed with 11,344
volunteers and 1,500 officials.
United States is in the house," trumpeted one of the athletes as the 1996
Paralympic Team paraded into the Olympic stadium where a sold-out crowd of
80,000 waited to greet them. Onlookers
included President Clinton, the Honorary Paralympic Chairman, Vice President
Gore, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Ross Perot, Janet Reno and Georgia Lieutenant
Governor Pierre Howard.
Paralympic torch, which began its 1,000 mile journey at the White House Rose
Garden, passed through the hands of thousands of proud Americans and traveled
through hundreds of cities, arriving at its destination to set an already
overexcited crowd on fire. Tim Willis, hometown champion and blind runner, bore
the torch into the stadium.
the traditional march of athletes, the ceremony was highlighted by Christopher
Reeves, Master of Ceremonies, and performances by Carly Simon, Daryl Hall and
John Oates, Liza Minelli and concluded with Aretha Franklin singing the
Paralympic theme song, "What's your Excuse?"
A true crowd pleaser came when Mark Wellman, a quadriplegic athlete,
climbed eight vertical stories using only mountain climbing gear and his arms to
light the Paralympic flame.
you are scratching your head trying to figure out why you don't know about the
Paralympic Games, you are not alone. For
Americans in general, lack of awareness of the Games is status quo.
At the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, CBS chose to limit coverage to four
hours. This was a good start,
considering the Paralympics had never been televised in this country.
These Games were not just a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit; these elite athletes came to Atlanta with something to prove. Tired of being classified as human-interest stories, the Paralympic competitors sought to prove that they were athletes first and foremost. They wanted to remove the focus from their disability and emphasize their achievements. For anyone who witnessed just one of the 225 world records set at these Games, it would be safe to say that the athletes definitely made their point. While each had a story of their own to tell, there were several athletes whose stories and accomplishments we won't forget. Their achievements left us shaking our heads in awe and looking forward to their next appearances at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
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