Monday, August 26, 1996

Paralympians look ahead to Sydney

 ATLANTA (AP) -- The party's over -- for real, this time. Atlanta's summer of international sports came to a close Sunday as Paralympic organizers looked back on 10 days worth of world-class games and glitches, and the athletes got ready to boogie.
 Thousands of disabled athletes from more than 120 nations gathered on the floor of a rapidly filling Olympic Stadium in a Mardi Gras-style celebration. A procession of multicolored floats, Caribbean dancers and bands danced around the track in costumes of gold, sapphire and silver.
 "It's going to be sad to see this all go away," said spectator Heidi Zakaluzny, as magenta and white fireworks exploded in the sky. "I've never seen Atlantahave so much culture. Now, it's going to go back to the boring, business city that it was."
 Between sips of frozen lemonade, Lucille Nealy said she wasn't looking forward to the transformation. "In my lifetime, I'll never see another event like this in Atlanta, so I had to come tonight."
 The closing also featured a rock'n'roll review emceed by pop-chart guru Casey Kasem and headlined by Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
 More than 200 world records for disabled athletes were set during the Paralympics and organizers boast that they sold at least 525,000 of the 1.2 million tickets estimated for the games.
 But don't expect to hear that Atlanta hosted the "best games ever" -- the phrase that got international Olympics chief Juan Antonio Samaranch into hot water when he refused to bestow the accolade upon Atlanta. Samaranch had routinely used the superlative phrase to describe previous Olympics.
 International Paralympics Chief Robert Steadward says he doesn't use the phrase and some athletes and spectators say it's not true anyway.
 "It's a U.S. thing," said Shawn Meredith, a U.S. wheelchair athlete from Champaign, Ill. "These games just don't have the respect here and I think it reflects poorly on our country. It was a little disorganized."
 Unlike their fellow Olympic athletes, the 3,500 disabled athletes arrived in the Olympic City to dirty dorm rooms, some smelly and littered venues, sparsely filled sports arenas and a city with an Olympic-sized hangover.
 "Barcelona tainted my view of things here," said Meredith, who won gold medals in the men's 400- and 800-meter wheelchair races. "The facilities were excellent, it was very organized and the transportation ran like clockwork."
 Here, Meredith said buses carrying athletes a mile away had to leave three hours early to avoid getting lost or any other holdups. And the food at Paralympic Village? Well, at least there were grits, he said.
 Melissa Elliott of Atlanta said she was a little embarrassed when a U.S. athlete won gold in cycling and no one could find the national anthem.
 "Someone finally yelled, 'Sing!"' said Elliott. "It would have been pretty embarrassing if it had been another country."
 Nonetheless, she praised Atlanta for trying to lure local residents out to the games. She said most were probably too tired.
 "I tried to get all of my neighbors and friends to come, but there was just no interest or excitement in it," Elliot said, showing off an autograph she got from a Paralympian to her husband, John. "I'm sad to see it all go away."
 This was the first year organizers charged admission to the disabled games -- a choice Sydney organizers are rethinking when it's Australia's turn to host the Paralympics in 2000. Unlike Atlanta, Sydney has one committee planning both the Olympics and Paralympics.
 Hundreds of people spent the last Paralympics day at Centennial Olympic Park, frolicking in the fountains one last time before the park closes for remodeling.
 Jim Dickert of Atlanta said it was his last chance to trade his collection of Olympic and Paralympic pins.
 "I think these games have been good for Atlanta," Dickert said. "I just hope the legacy continues on."