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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.


This 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.


Some 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.

What 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. 

There 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.


The 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.


"The 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. 


The 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.


Following 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.


If 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.


Team King
Telephone: 719.339.1557

updated 08/23/2004
Copyright 2000 Team King All Rights Reserved

US Paralympics

US Paralympics