Twenty-three years ago this month, Atlanta hosted the Summer Paralympic Games, the companion event to the Olympics where the world’s top athletes with impairments compete for the gold. But the Paralympics nearly didn’t even come to the U.S. – let alone the city – until Buckhead’s Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital fought hard to win it, saved the day, and changed the Games forever.

Partly from disorganization and partly from Olympic infighting over money, power and even legal rights to a cute mascot, the 1996 Paralympics were at risk of happening as far away as the Netherlands rather than alongside the Centennial Olympic Games. Today, the Paralympics are automatically paired with the Olympics as a result of Shepherd Center co-founder Alana Shepherd’s crusade to bring the Games to Atlanta. And a successful battle to have the Paralympics taken seriously financially, with ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, changed the Games, too.

“I can’t overstate the importance of Alana Shepherd and the Shepherd Center… in not only hosting the Games, but in moving the ball forward for the Paralympic movement in the United States and the world,” says Andy Fleming, who served as president and CEO of the Atlanta Paralympics Committee and has advocated for athletes with impairments in several other organizations.

Today’s practice of pairing the Olympics and Paralympics in the same city and venues within weeks of each other “I think was a legacy of the Atlanta Paralympics,” says Ed Hula, editor-in-chief of Around the Rings, an Olympics industry trade publication headquartered in Buckhead.

It was a natural fit for the hospital on Peachtree Road, which serves people with brain and spinal cord injuries, which the Shepherd family founded in 1975 when Alana’s son James couldn’t find such care after a devastating surfing accident.

“Our effort really did make it better, making it one [organizing] committee,” said Shepherd in a recent interview, recalling that Atlanta came “very close” to losing the Paralympics.

“It was definitely going to England” if the Atlanta organizers failed, she said. So they didn’t fail, “despite all the roadblocks thrown in front of us.”

Separate bids, separate Games

The Paralympics – originally named for the condition of paraplegia but now reinterpreted as referring to an event “parallel” to the Olympics – evolved from competitions for World War II veterans with disabilities and was first held in Rome in 1960. For over two decades, the Paralympics were held at least in the same country, and sometimes the same city, as the Olympics, but they were treated as entirely separate events with separate bidding and planning processes.

Then the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles shook things up, Fleming said. That unusual, relatively low-budget Olympics, organized when L.A. was the only bidder, did not include the Paralympics, which ended up being staged partly in New York State and partly in England. The next two Summer Olympics, in 1988 and 1992, teamed up with the Paralympics, but that was entirely by choice.

“There was total separation at that stage of the Olympics in the ’80s, early ’90s,” said Hula.

Andy Fleming, the former president and CEO of the Atlanta Paralympics Committee. (Special)

Atlanta nearly split the events up again. For one thing, virtually no one – even the bid committee — expected Atlanta to win its 1996 Olympics bid. The 1990 announcement took everyone by surprise, including people like Fleming, who was interested in putting together a Paralympics bid but was unprepared. It would be a year-and-a-half before a Paralympics bid was ready.

The Olympics bid committee was focused on an L.A.-style, lower-budget, profit-making Games and did not see an upside in taking on the logistics and expenses, Fleming said. “The Olympics guys were skeptical,” he said, adding he couldn’t blame them, as the Paralympics had no TV rights deal or major corporate sponsorships while facing an estimated $80 million budget. In one marketing survey, Fleming recalled, the Paralympics had a name recognition of only 2%, while the Atlanta Youth Games had 4% — and was a red herring that didn’t exist. “We started two points below a nonexistent event in awareness,” he said.

The Olympics bid committee did offer some funding and agreed to submit a Paralympics bid as well if a local committee got its act together.

That’s when the Shepherd Center and its founding family – Alana, husband Harold and son James – stepped in as founding sponsors of the Atlanta Paralympics. According to press reports at the time, the Paralympics committee operated from a small basement office at the hospital. It was a natural fit, as the hospital had worked with athletes with disabilities, including wheelchair-using entrants in the Peachtree Road Race.

Competing for sponsorship gold

When the bid was accepted, a competition began for a different kind of gold – sponsorship cash.

The Paralympics drew such major sponsors as Coca-Cola and Home Depot. But it also ran into competition from an unexpected source: the Olympics itself. The United States Olympic Committee, which oversaw all U.S. Games bidding and organizing, was notorious for tightly policing its brand and striking tough marketing deals, and sometimes viewed the Paralympics as infringing. According to an Atlanta Journal report, the USOC dragged the Atlanta Paralympics into a legal dispute about its mascot, a phoenix named Blaze.

Worse still, the USOC forced the Atlanta Paralympics organizers to accept a marketing deal that pitted it against the Atlanta Olympics. Fleming said the deal required them to approach only corporate sponsors who had already inked an Olympics sponsorship agreement. And if the company declined, the Paralympics organizers could only solicit a competitor with the company’s permission. In one example, Fleming said, McDonald’s said no to a Paralympics sponsorship and also would not let them solicit Chick-fil-A, even though Dan Cathy, one of its executives, was on the organizing committee.

Alana Shepherd, co-founder of the Shepherd Center. (Special)

Alana Shepherd tore into the deal furiously. She began appearing in the press brandishing a piece of paper listing what she called the “Sinful Six” – the half-dozen major corporations that said no to a Paralympics sponsorship and barred contact with competitors. Besides McDonald’s, they included Anheuser-Busch, Visa, Bausch and Lomb, John Hancock and Sara Lee. “I keep the list in my wallet,” Shepherd told a reporter at the time.

Today, Shepherd declines to say much about the “Sinful Six” and the deal. “I’m taking the high road now… I’m not digging it up,” she said, but added, “They were the losers. We were the winners.”

Shepherd said she attended the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and happened to have Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the International Olympics Committee president, sit next to her. She gave him an earful. “I said, ‘You know, it’s crazy to have two different committees holding events,’” she recalled.

“They didn’t understand it, were scared of it,” she said of Olympics officials’ attitude toward the Paralympics. “It was something they didn’t understand would help the city become more accessible.”

The Atlanta Paralympics raised its money and ran Aug. 16-25, 1996, about two weeks after the Olympics and in many of the same venues. Fleming said it had a surplus of several million dollars, which funded the BlazeSports America, a Norcross-based nonprofit that runs sports programs for children and veterans with disabilities.

Samaranch and others must have heard the message. “After Atlanta, the IOC said it would not entertain an Olympics bid unless they also made provisions for the Paralympics,” said Fleming. “The IOC leadership essentially said, ‘The Paralympics movement is not going away, especially after Atlanta… so we should make sense of that….”

And respectful treatment for the Paralympics and its athletes continues to rise in the Olympics world, Fleming said. Earlier this year, the USOC adopted a new name: the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and now offers more cash prizes to Paralympic athletes.