Background to the Games

Atlanta was awarded the right to host the 1996 Games on 18th September 1990. 

It was not long after this that the organising committee said that they did not have the funding or resources to plan the Paralympics as well. Local groups (several of whom were linked with the Shepherd Spinal Centre in Atlanta) rallied together and put forward plans to organise and fund the event. At this point, the Olympic Games organisers put forward $5 million. 

Before the Games began, the International Olympic Committee stated that the Atlanta Games would be the final time that the Paralympics and Olympics, held in the same city, would be organised separately from one another. It would be mandatory for a city to include plans for a Paralympic Games (including details on how it would fund the event) in its bid to host an Olympic Games.

Atlanta saw the launch of the first corporate sponsorship programme, marketing the Games as a commercially viable event. Twenty-six sponsors signed on at the Worldwide, Official Sponsor and Official Supplier levels, and, between them, covered over two thirds of the cost of the Games. The newly formed International Paralympic Committee learned a hard lesson in contract negotiation when, after the Games, they received a cheque for $725,000, while the Atlanta Paralympic Organising Committee received $3,850,000 which went to a newly formed USA Disabled Athletes Fund.

The build-up to the Games

Logo

Logo for the Atlanta 1996 Summer Paralympics

Called ‘Starfire’, the logo was designed to represent athletes fulfilling their dreams. The star represents the athlete with the fire as the passion that burns in the heart to fulfil their dreams, the ‘dynamic flow of the rings’ that reveal the fifth point of the star represent the athlete fulfilling their quest.

Changes to Events

There were several demonstration sports included at the Atlanta Games for the first time: equestrian (dressage), sailing and wheelchair rugby (originally called 'murderball'). 

For the first time, athletes with intellectual disabilities were able to compete at a Paralympic Games.

Venues

  • Alexander Memorial Coliseum
    Designed by architects Aeck Associates of Atlanta, the stadium opened in 1956. A $13-million upgrade completed in January 1996 included an increase in seating capacity, new scoreboards and the installation of air conditioning which was funded by a gift from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) and York Air Conditioning.
    Spectator capacity - 9,191
    Used for standing volleyball.
  • Aqualand Marina – Lake Lanier
    Recognised as the world’s largest inland marina, Aqualand Marina is on Lake Lanier, a manmade reservoir created by the construction of the Buford Dam, completed in 1956 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
    Used for yachting.
  • Atlanta Metro College
    Used for judo and wheelchair rugby.
  • Centennial Olympic Stadium
    Built for the 1996 Games at a cost of $207 million (which included the cost of converting it to a 45,000-seat baseball stadium for the National League Atlanta Braves after the Games).
    Spectator capacity - 85,000
    Used for the opening and closing ceremonies and athletics events.
  • Clark – Atlanta University Football
    Used for lawn bowls.
  • Clayton State College
    Used for sitting volleyball.
  • Emory University
    Used for boccia.
  • Georgia International Horse Park
    In 1990 the city of Conyers bought an expensive piece of land to help it meet increasingly stringent federal and state guidelines about wastewater being discharged into rivers and were looking for an opportunity to offset the cost. After learning that the site originally identified to host the Olympic equestrian events would not be hosting them, the city officials submitted a bid. After a bid process which included visits from members of the International Equestrian Federation and the American Horse Shows Association, the Georgia International Horse Park was awarded the equestrian events on the 21st October 1991. The facility opened in September 1995.
    Used for equestrian.
  • Georgia State University
    Used for goalball.
  • Georgia Tech University, Aquatic Centre
    Used for swimming.
  • Gwinnett Civic and Cultural Centre
    Opened in 1992.
    Used for table tennis.
  • Marriott Marquis Hotel Ballroom
    Used for powerlifting.
  • Mercer University
    Used for fencing.
  • Morehouse College
    Used for the preliminary basketball.
  • Stone Mountain Park
    Used for archery, road and track cycling and wheelchair tennis.
  • The Omni
    Used for basketball.
  • Wolf Creek Shooting Range
    Used for shooting.

Mascot

Mascot for the Atlanta 1996 Summer Paralympics

© International Paralympic Committee (IPC)

The mascot for the Atlanta Paralympic Games was Blaze the phoenix, designed by Trevor Irwin. The phoenix was chosen because it is the symbol of the city of Atlanta. It was also seen as a symbol of renewal, perseverance and determination. 

A lawsuit was filed by the Atlanta Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games against the Atlanta Paralympic Organising committee to limit the impact of Blaze as a brand, as he was seen to be more commercially sustainable than the Olympic mascot.

The Paralympic Flame

The Paralympic torch relay was the first of its kind at the Atlanta Games. The torch was lit in Atlanta at the tomb of Martin Luther King before being flown to the Whitehouse. It crossed through four states and covered an average of 100 miles a day. The cauldron was lit following a 120-foot rope climb by two-time American Paralympian Mark Wellman, who had the flaming torch. In 1989, Mark had become the first paraplegic to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

The opening ceremony

US Vice-President Al Gore officially opened the Games which took place at the Centennial Olympic Stadium, attended by approximately 66,257 people. Actor Christopher Reeve, who had been paralysed following a horse-riding accident, acted as master of ceremonies. Headliners included Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon and Liza Minnelli, and they were seen alongside 5000 gospel singers, a 1000-strong children’s choir as well as hundreds of students from school marching bands, choirs and dance groups. 

The ceremony also featured a trained American Bald eagle, who circled the stadium before flying towards the American flag.

During the Games

There were a significant number of complaints about aspects of the Paralympic village, such as the state of the rooms, the food and transportation. Many of the reported problems in the Paralympic village seem to have come from the failure of the Olympic Organising Committee to complete the previously agreed handover procedures, including cleaning, and it is reported that appliances and plug sockets had been ripped out, leaving a mess – something they denied. The problems were exacerbated by the fact the village was handed over two days late.

The use of a wide range of public and private facilities across the city to keep costs down added to the transportation problems.

The Atlanta Paralympic Organising Committee (APOC) was criticised for their handling of the Intellectually Disabled athletes who were competing in the Games for the first time. They were not mentioned in any of the Games advertising material, even when the classifications were explained and they were not mentioned or introduced during the opening ceremony. APOC did not respond to repeated official complaints from Bernard Athos, President of International Association of Sports for Persons with a Mental Handicap until Athos contacted the Atlanta press. It was only after the Atlanta newspapers picked up the story that it appears APOC immediately apologised for their unintended oversight.

With the twin aims of broadening the appeal of the Games and drawing parallels between excellence in sport and the arts, a Cultural Paralympiad was included in the event. It showcased the work of artists with an impairment across a variety of creative disciplines including dance, music, visual art, film and theatre.

The Medals

Medals for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games

© Ian Brittain

The medals received by athletes in Atlanta featured the Games’ logo alongside the date and location of the event. They also featured stylised flames, which were meant to represent 'the human spirit burning brightly'. The flames were also a link with the Games’ mascot, Blaze. 

On the reverse, the medals featured braille and three tae-geuks (a traditional Korean design said to symbolise mind, body and spirit). In earlier Games, medals had featured five Tae-Geuks, but this updated design using only three became the symbol of the Paralympics and was used on medals up until 2006.

Medal ceremony at the Aquatic Centre at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics

Medal ceremony at the Aquatic Centre ©Brendan Gately

Medal statistics

3,253 athletes from 104 countries, competed in 519 events in 19 sports.  The GB team of 165 men and 83 women won a total of 122 medals (39 gold, 42 silver and 41 bronze) and finished fourth in the medals table.

Prominent British Paralympic athletes

The top GB female athletes (in terms of number of medals won) were:

  • Margaret McEleny (7 medals, swimming)
  • Sarah Bailey (5 medals, swimming)
  • Jeanette Esling (5 medals, swimming) 

The top GB male athletes (in terms of number of medals won) were:

  • Christopher Holmes (4 medals, swimming)
  • Stephen Payton (4 medals, athletics)
  • Marc Woods (3 medals, swimming)
  • Paul Williams (3 medals, athletics)
  • Giles Long (3 medals, swimming)
  • James Anderson (3 medals, swimming) 

In terms of the number of gold medals won, the top athletes were:

  • Sarah Bailey (3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze, swimming). Sarah, who was born without a functioning left hand, first competed at a Paralympic Games in 1992 at the age of 14. At the Atlanta Games, she won gold in the Women’s 100m backstroke S10, Women’s 100m breaststroke SB10, and Women’s 200m medley SM10. She also won silver in the Women’s 400m freestyle S10, and bronze in the Women’s 100m freestyle S10. She went on to win medals in the pool at Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004), before switching to cycling and continuing to add to her gold medal tally at Beijing (2008), London (2012), and Rio de Janeiro (2016).
  • Jeanette Esling. After representing Great Britain in swimming at five consecutive Paralympics, Jeanette retired after the 2004 Athens Games, having won a total of 12 medals. After her retirement she took up kayaking and went on to represent Great Britain, competing as Jeanette Chippington (after her marriage in 1998) at the 2016 Rio Games, winning gold in the KL1 200m at Paracanoe's debut. She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to canoeing.

I retired from competitive swimming and was looking for another sport to take up for a hobby . . . I was introduced to kayaking [Para canoe] by a friend and fell in love with it immediately. It was only ever meant to be a hobby but after 20 years of competition and training it must have still been in my blood.

  • Christopher Holmes (3 gold, 1 silver, swimming). After unexpectedly going blind at the age of 14, Chris went on to compete at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Games (and later he would also compete at the Sydney Games in 2000). In Atlanta (aged 25), he won gold in the Men’s 50m Freestyle B2, Men’s 100m Freestyle B2, and Men’s 100m Backstroke B2. Five years previously he had been awarded an MBE for services to British sport.
  • Stephen Payton (3 gold, 1 bronze, athletics). Stephen is a cerebral palsy athlete and his first appearance at a Paralympic Games was in Atlanta. He won gold in the Men’s 100m, 200m and 400m T37 classes. He also won a bronze as part of the Men’s 4x100m relay T34-37. Following his success in Atlanta, Stephen was awarded the British Sports Writers Disabled Athlete of the Year award, the Scottish Athletics Federation Athlete of the Year award, and the Sunday Mail Great Scot Unsung Hero award.

Media coverage at the event

There were 2,088 accredited media representatives at the Atlanta Paralympic Games, and, for the first time, coverage of the Paralympics was broadcast on US television. Coverage was also shown in 28 other countries and the expected audience was around 50 million viewers. 

In stark contrast to the $456 million paid by NBC for the rights to broadcast the Atlanta Olympic Games on American television, the Paralympic Games organisers had to pay $1million to have the Games broadcast on American television. That said, live coverage of the Paralympics was only possible in three of the 14 venues (covering athletics, swimming and basketball) as there was only one camera and crew in each of the other eleven.

The closing ceremony

Closing ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics

© Brendan Gately

The closing ceremony took place on Sunday 25 August 1996. It was attended by approximately 57,640 people and featured a 'Mardi Gras style parade, fireworks and F-18 fighter jet flyby'. The IPC flag was handed over to Michael Knight, the New South Wales Minister for the 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

References

  • I. Brittain, From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A history of the Summer Paralympic Games, Champaign, Illinois, Common Ground Publishing, 2012.
  • Bailey, S., 2008, Athlete First: A history of the Paralympic Movement, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  • Adair, S. Darcy and S. Frawley (eds.), Managing the Paralympics, Sydney, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 
  • http://edition.cnn.com/US/9608/06/paralympics/ (accessed 22 November 2019) 
  • http://chrisholmes.co.uk/about-chris/
  • https://history.fei.org/node/108
  • https://paralympichistory.org.au/article/the-flag-was-passed-to-sydney/
  • https://www.bbc.com/timelines/zcmgv4j
  • https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/gbcyclingteam/new/bio/Dame_Sarah_Storey_OBE
  • https://www.climbing.com/people/life-without-limitations-mark-wellman-and-the-first-paraplegic-ascent-of-el-capitan/
  • https://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1010789/1996-atlanta
  • https://www.nolimitstahoe.com/about/index.htm
  • https://www.paralympic.org/atlanta-1996
  • https://www.paralympic.org/christopher-holmes
  • https://www.paralympic.org/sarah-storey
  • https://www.paralympic.org/stephen-payton
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/equestrian
  • https://www.sailing.org/news/40607.php#.Xcq991f7SHs
  • https://www.sta.co.uk/news/2017/08/30/cross-of-merit-awarded-for-lifelong-dedication-to-swimming/
  • https://apnews.com/d289febee47e5821414a345f49c02b92
  • http://basketball.ballparks.com/NCAA/ACC/GeorgiaTech/index.htm
  • http://chrisholmes.co.uk/about-chris/
  • http://edition.cnn.com/US/9608/06/paralympics/
  • http://olympics.ballparks.com/1996Atlanta/index.htm
  • https://apnews.com/d289febee47e5821414a345f49c02b92
  • https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O133457/paralympics-atlanta-1996-poster-arnoldi-per/
  • https://history.fei.org/node/108
  • https://paralympichistory.org.au/article/the-flag-was-passed-to-sydney/
  • https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7622/6beea4d526c3ebeceb6b819eb588bfbfc102.pdf
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19371031
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19371031
  • https://www.bbc.com/timelines/zcmgv4j
  • https://www.britishcanoeing.org.uk/olympic-paralympic/team/jeanette-chippington
  • https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/gbcyclingteam/new/bio/Dame_Sarah_Storey_OBE
  • https://www.climbing.com/people/life-without-limitations-mark-wellman-and-the-first-paraplegic-ascent-of-el-capitan/
  • https://www.georgiahorsepark.com/p/about/147
  • https://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1010789/1996-atlanta
  • https://www.ipttc.org/medals/
  • https://www.nolimitstahoe.com/about/index.htm
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/15/us/welcoming-the-disabled-atlanta-lets-the-games-begin-again.html
  • https://www.paralympic.org/atlanta-1996
  • https://www.paralympic.org/atlanta-1996/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/atlanta-1996/results
  • https://www.paralympic.org/christopher-holmes
  • https://www.paralympic.org/jeanette-chippington
  • https://www.paralympic.org/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/sarah-storey
  • https://www.paralympic.org/stephen-payton
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/equestrian
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/paralympic-medals
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/paralympic-medals
  • https://www.sailing.org/news/40607.php#.Xcq991f7SHs
  • https://www.sta.co.uk/news/2017/08/30/cross-of-merit-awarded-for-lifelong-dedication-to-swimming/