Disabled athletes from 120 countries took center stage Thursday night at Olympic Stadium, where thousands of fans still gripped by Olympic euphoria turned out for the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Paralympics.
Less than two weeks after the Olympic flame was extinguished, the crowds came back to cheer on the 3,500 disabled athletes competing in Atlanta’s second round of games.
“We’re all feeling post-Olympic syndrome. This gives us a way to ease out of things a little bit,” said Sue Anduze of Douglasville, Ga., whose two teenage daughters were performing in the Opening Ceremonies.
Among the 64,500 spectators were Vice President Gore and Juan Antonio Samaranch, head of the International Olympic Committee.
“On behalf of President Clinton and a proud American nation eagerly awaiting the Paralympics to begin, I declare the 1996 Paralympic Games of Atlanta open,” Gore said.
Perhaps the spectator most in need of a post-Olympic pick-me-up was Atlanta Olympics chief Billy Payne, who said the Paralympic celebration offered some relief after days spent saying goodbye to Olympic workers.
Actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident in 1995, served as master of ceremonies. After a brief delay following his introduction, Reeve appeared on the stage from a rotating platform to introduce the parade of athletes.
“As we exit this stadium, consider their journeys and rejoice in their accomplishments,” Reeve said. “They’ve arrived at a place in the world, the pinnacle of competition for world-class athletes with disabilities.”
Like the Paralympic events, the ceremony downplayed participants’ disabilities, focusing instead on their accomplishments.
Soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, who uses a motorized wheelchair since a 1982 automobile accident left him partially paralyzed, belted out “The Star Spangled Banner.” Army Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman, who lost both legs in a skydiving accident in 1994, parachuted into a star formed by children on the field.
Other featured headliners at the opening included Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli and Hall and Oates.
At the climax of the night, Paralympian Mark Wellman, a paraplegic, lit the cauldron after climbing a wire to the top of the cauldron’s tower using only his arms. He clasped the flame between two prosthetic legs, then lifted it triumphantly in one hand after reaching the top.
This is the first time organizers have charged admission to the Paralympics, which run through Aug. 25 at venues used for the Olympics.
Still, the Opening Ceremonies sold out by Wednesday, with tickets ranging from $15 to $100. Regardless, fans continued to line up outside the stadium, trying to buy tickets.
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