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Shepherd Center Plays Pivotal Role in Winning 1996 Paralympic Games for Atlanta

Few could have predicted in 1992 how Shepherd Center would help change the city of Atlanta forever.

After countless hours of planning and preparation from an all-volunteer, Shepherd Center-led exploratory committee, a dream started to materialize in Tignes, France. It was there – home of the 1992 Paralympic Winter Games – where Shepherd Center co-founders Harold and Alana Shepherd, David Apple, M.D., and others representing Shepherd Center and Atlanta submitted the city’s bid to host the 1996 Paralympic Games.

That bid was accepted in March 1992, setting into motion a herculean effort that would transform the Games themselves, the athletes who would compete in them and the city that would host it all.

The group knew little about the task ahead, says Shepherd Center board chairman James Shepherd, and less about the impact their bid would ultimately have on the city of Atlanta.

“We didn’t really have a clue of the depth and scope of our effort,” James recalls.

Fred Alias, who serves on Shepherd Center’s board, has been involved with the hospital for more than 30 years and was instrumental in bringing the Paralympic Games to Atlanta, called it “the most massive undertaking I had ever seen.”

“Just the logistics of getting everyone in and out, to the venues, housed, fed – it took lots of planning,” he says. “It was akin to putting a man on the moon.”

But the effort paid off, culminating in the most visible – and likely the most successful – Paralympic Games in history. It was the second-largest sporting event in the world that year.

More than 3,000 world-class Paralympic athletes came to Atlanta, shattering more than 200 world and Paralympic records during the 10 days of competition, more than at any other Paralympic Games.

It was the first time the Paralympics had been put on with private funding and the first profitable Games. Several corporations invested significant sponsorship dollars, including Coca-Cola, which was the first Official Worldwide Sponsor. The Home Depot, AT&T, UPS and others followed. All told, corporations poured nearly $40 million into the Atlanta Paralympic Games.

The payoffs didn’t end with rising coffers.

An unprecedented media spotlight shone brightly on the Games, the athletes and the city. Some 2,000 journalists from around the world came to cover them, and more than 40 countries bought the rights to televise the Games abroad. Major networks in the United States covered the Paralympics for the first time, and daily satellite news feeds reached an estimated 50 million viewers.

The concept for the Paralympic Games started in England in 1948 at Stoke Mandeville Hospital by Sir Ludwig Guttman as a means of therapy for people in wheelchairs. The first official Paralympic Games occurred in Italy in 1960, and in 1988, in Seoul, South Korea, the athletes’ commitment and training earned them recognition as elite athletes, according to “The Triumph of the Human Spirit,” a book about the 1996 Games.

It wasn’t until the Atlanta Games, however, that the athletes – through heightened visibility and unprecedented engagement with fans – so completely captured the hearts and minds of spectators, particularly children, James says.

“The athletes were more visible than ever,” he says. “They were up in the stands interacting with people and children and families. They really moved the bar for people with ‘disabilities’ as to what they were really capable of.”

One of those athletes was 10-time medal winner and Atlantan Curtis Lovejoy, who holds dozens of world records in swimming and fencing, but who had never attempted either sport before undergoing spinal cord injury rehabilitation at Shepherd Center in 1986.

“The 1996 Games just brought a ton of exposure to the athletes,” says Lovejoy, who began swimming at Shepherd Center as part of his therapy and still trains and coaches the Center’s swim team in Shepherd Center’s Olympic-sized pool. “So much preparation had been done by all of these athletes, and just the emotion of everything meant so much. If you sit in the stands as a fan watching, that’s one thing, but to roll in and see all the people and to know that all the hard work has paid off, it was just incredible.”

The 1996 Paralympic Games held many firsts, which elevated the Games to historic levels. Their longer-term legacy, however, is more difficult to measure.

“It all had a huge impact here,” James says. “I think it accelerated the city’s efforts to be accessible. It accelerated an awareness around the need to do more in that regard.”

With their heightened visibility, the Games affirmed the elite status of those competing, says Donald P. Leslie, M.D., Shepherd Center’s medical director who joined the hospital’s medical staff in 1983 and has treated a number of patient athletes, including Lovejoy.

“It was a pivotal moment in disabled sports and changed the mindset that these are really world-class athletes,” Dr. Leslie says.

Perhaps no change has meant more than a shift in the collective consciousness of Atlanta around the issues related to physical disabilities.

“After the Games, we saw that Atlanta had become more accessible,” Alana says. “We saw schools more integrated, for example, rather than isolating kids with disabilities.”

That’s the kind of lasting change that Shepherd Center can be proud of, James says.

“Institutionally, it was one of the brighter moments in our history,” he adds. “When the impact has been lasting and beneficial, and you can say, ‘Yeah, we were part of that,’ those are the things that mean so much.

“Maybe you were the fire or maybe you threw gas on an existing fire, but you helped facilitate community change, and that’s what we get excited about as an institution. The causes vary, but our reputation for bringing positive change allows us to embrace them.”

The 1996 Paralympics will forever exemplify that passion and the transformation that can come when a few individuals set out with conviction.

“We had people with tenacity and talent,” Fred says. “And we never looked back. The Games proved that if you have the right people and a clear goal, as unrealistic as it might seem at the time, you will win.”

Major sponsors of the Atlanta Paralympic Games:

  • Shepherd Center
  • Coca Cola
  • IMB
  • Motorola
  • Turner Sports
  • Home Depot
  • Bell South
  • Kodak
  • Xerox
  • AT&T
  • Marta
  • UPS
  • Nation's Bank

Written by Shawn Reeves

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.