My Opinion – The Paralympics That Almost Didn’t Happen

From Sidelines to Spotlight: Joining the Paralympic Elite

From Sidelines to Spotlight: Joining the Paralympic Elite


It was Aug. 15, 1996, and over 3,000 athletes from 104 countries had marched onto the field inside Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta.

Proudly, I was among the 315 athletes rep-resenting the U.S. at the 10th Paralympic Games, but I was somewhat nervous that my lack of experience and naïveté would soon 
become apparent when competing against 
more seasoned athletes.

As the opening ceremonies proceeded, we rolled onto the track in our spiffy Team USA uniforms that were just issued to us the day before and still had that fresh, out-of-the-plastic-bag chemical smell.
Like several other athletes, I reached down to touch the track. We were curious to know if the vulcanized rubber surface was as firm and fast as we expected. After all, it was just two weeks earlier that Michael Johnson, aka “The Man with the Golden Shoes,” had broken Olympic and world records. However, running with track spikes is quite different from rolling on tires.

Looking up, I knew I had friends and family somewhere in the crowd of 66,000 cheering spectators, and I wasn’t sure who was more excited — them or me.

Then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore officially opened the Games, and actor Christopher Reeve, who had been paralyzed just over a year prior, acted as master of ceremonies. Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli and other musical acts from my parents’ record collection performed alongside 5,000 gospel singers, a choir of 1,000 children and a number of school marching bands and dance groups.

A trained American bald eagle soared high above the field before flying toward the American flag.

Then, Mark Wellman, a paralyzed climber, ascended a long rope with the flaming Paralympic torch tucked between his legs and lit the cauldron perched high above the cheering crowds … It took a while, but it was pretty dramatic.
What was truly amazing about this event was that it almost didn’t happen. The 10th Paralympic Games in Atlanta wouldn’t have taken place had it not been for a very small group of well-intended folks led by a well-known Atlanta resident, Alana Shepherd.

Does that name sound familiar? Shepherd, with her husband, Harold, established the world-renowned Shepherd Center in Atlanta in 1975 after their son, James, sustained a spinal-cord injury in 1973. From the beginning, the Shepherd Center was a major proponent in the disabled sports movement, so Alana was in a good position to do something about the pending Paralympic fail.

In 1990, when the city of Atlanta won the right to host the Olympics, it wasn’t obligated to host the Paralympics. And, when the local organizers who pledged to stage the Olympics were being pressured to also host the Paralympics, they said they didn’t have the money in their budget. I’m guessing they didn’t see any upside to hosting such an event either.

However, the preceding Olympic host city of Barcelona saw things differently. The forward-thinking organizers had bid for the Olympic Games and subsequent Paralympic Games as a bundle.
That’s to say, the folks who planned, managed and executed the 1992 Olympic Games had also planned, managed and executed the Paralympic Games. This meant Paralympic athletes would have the same conditions and opportunities as their Olympic counterparts. Paralympians could compete in accessible venues, lodge in an accessible Olympic/Paralympic village and enjoy the same services.

The legend goes that Alana, not dissuaded by the pushback from the Olympic organizers in Atlanta, traveled to Barcelona with the intention of convincing then-International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch that the Barcelona way was the right way.

She was successful, and from that moment on, the Olympics and the Paralympics would be bundled during the bidding process. If a city wanted to host the Olympics, its bid must include hosting
the Paralympics.
While this agreement was supposed to guarantee logistical coordination, it was also supposed to have a positive impact on fundraising and marketing for the 1996 Paralympics. Some Olympic sponsors, such as the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company, came forward to back the 1996 Paralympics, but there were others that didn’t play nice.

Alana explained in an Aug. 15, 1996, New York Times article how Olympic sponsors such as “Visa, Sara Lee, Anheuser-Busch, McDonald’s, John Hancock and Bausch + Lomb” declined a deal with the “much less costly” Paralympics, but wouldn’t let organizers approach their respective competitors for sponsorships.

Despite the turmoil leading up to and during the 1996 Games, tensions in Atlanta dissipated, and for the most part, the athletes had a great experience.
Fortunately, over time, host cities and sponsors have learned the benefits of supporting the Paralympics. Matter of fact, Visa, which turned down the 1996 Paralympics, has become one of the biggest corporate partners of the event, and the city of Atlanta has become more accessible and inclusive. A win-win situation for all.

Sure, the Atlanta Games weren’t perfect. My performance on the track was less than desirable and for that, I blame myself. However, there were plenty of significant problems regarding the food service, lodging conditions and transportation failures that impacted all athletes.

Fortunately, Olympic and Paralympic organizers have implemented quite a few new policies since then that have had great results. When our athletes arrive in Paris next month, there will be unexpected challenges; that’s guaranteed. But it’s been three decades since Alana had that pivotal conversation with Samaranch, so athletes can now focus on their pending performances rather than searching for a decent meal, a place to sleep and a ride to the stadium.

I wish all members of the U.S. Paralympic team the best of luck in Paris. When you get back, please let me know how it went at

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