A Brawl That's Hardly In The Olympic Spirit

In 1979, about two years after a train accident severed his legs, Andy Fleming led a charge in Santa Barbara to create recreational sports programs for physically disabled athletes. The city council eventually bought into Fleming's plan--and then hired him to run the new program.

It has been a fast ride from there to what will likely be the biggest event ever for disabled athletes: the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. With more than 4,000 athletes, 17 events, and a budget of $100 million, the Paralympics have taken disabled athletes to heights Fleming never imagined.

He also fever imagined such big headaches. As it solidifies its place in the world of big-time sporting events, the Paralympics finds itself in a high-stakes game of hardball politics. Fleming's organization, the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee (APOC), is now suing the U.S. Olympic Committee over the rights to Blaze, the Paralympics' colorful phoenix mascot, which is expected to deliver as much as $25 million in licensing fees. Meanwhile, the Paralympics' image is being hurt by a squabble with mentally disabled athletes crying foul over their exclusion from the Atlanta games. Both flaps could hurt the APOC's fund-raising efforts. Says Fleming: "The more we do to elevate the status of the [parathletic] movement, the more opportunity there is for these kinds of problems."

If that's the case, Fleming will have his hands even fuller. The 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona attracted 1.5 million spectators. The APOC is "confident," says Fleming, it will beat that mark in 1996 and will take in $100 million from corporate sponsors, private foundations, and licensing deals--funding sources the Barcelona games lacked. The bait: a potential audience of 31.4 million physically disabled Americans who earn a total of $461 billion a year. That's enough to get Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and home medical-equipment maker Sunrise Medical to pay upwards of $4 million each to sponsor the 10-day competition.

It's the sound of ringing cash registers that has exacerbated the APOC's troubles with the USOC. Blaze's licensing potential is so tantalizing that the APOC set up the U.S. Disabled Athletes' Fund (USDAF) to market the mascot long after the Atlanta games are over, with proceeds to benefit physically disabled athletes. "The upside potential is enormous," says Fleming, who likens the bird's appeal to that of the Cabbage Patch Kids or Bart Simpson.

Now the USOC wants its share of Blaze's action. Claiming broad ownership of the word "Paralympic" and any related logo, the Olympic Committee is disputing the Atlanta Paralympics' claims to the mascot. It wants the right of approval for any use of Blaze--and a 2.5% royalty. Unable to persuade the USOC to back off, the Atlanta Paralympics is suing. It contends that the USOC indeed has some rights to Blaze during the games but that afterward he belongs to the USDAF.

HAT IN HAND. The relationship between the USOC and the Paralympics has always been strained. Paralympians have long felt underfunded by the USOC and resent its tightfisted ownership of the Paralympic name. "We have had a long-standing disagreement with the USOC over the commercial use of the term," says Fleming. In fact, the U.S Paralympic team had to call itself the "U.S. Disabled Sports Team" at Barcelona.

For its part, the USOC expresses surprise at the Paralympics' lawsuit, especially since it advanced $500,000 last fall when Fleming came hat in hand because the Paralympics couldn't meet its payroll. "Some of that money is being used to sue the USOC," complains outgoing USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller. But the APOC notes that the loan was contingent on its having to sign an agreement that restricts it from selling sponsorships to rivals of Olympic Games sponsors. "It was not a completely magnanimous gesture," says Fleming.

The same could be said about the Paralympics' attitude toward athletes with mental handicaps. The APOC is refusing a petition by the Belgium-based International Association for Sport for People with Mental Handicaps to allow some of its stars to compete in Atlanta, saying that such inclusion would muddle its efforts to promote athletes with physical disabilities. Bernard Atha, head of the Belgian group, vows that he will raise the issue with Paralympics sponsors. "There will be an international outcry which will inevitably damage the Paralympic movement," Atha warns. Says Fleming: "We don't see this as having any impact on our games."

Ah, the joys of the big-time playing field. It makes you wonder: If the Paralympics can't be held without acrimony, what hope is there for that old-fashioned notion called sportsmanship?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.