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Personified by a paraplegic climbing a 98-foot wire, hand-over-hand, to reignite the Olympic cauldron, the 1996 Paralympics opened with a celebration emphasizing guts rather than glitz.

There were no giant puppets or chrome-plated pickup trucks to wow the 64,500 spectators who flocked to Olympic Stadium for Thursday's Paralympic opening ceremony.And instead of world-famous Muhammad Ali lighting the cauldron, there was unknown Mark Wellman - who carried the flame between his legs as he hoisted his body from the top of the stadium to the top of the tower.

Wellman's jaw-dropping feat climaxed the ceremony in which 3,500 disabled athletes from 120 countries took center stage in Atlanta.

For the next 10 days, they'll compete in the same venues as Olympic athletes, goading the world to check out what they can do rather than check them off for what they can't.

"Just as Dr. (Martin Luther) King taught us that the color of one's skin should not determine one's destiny, so too will these athletes teach us that one's physical characteristics should not define or limit their life's potential," Atlanta Paralympic chief Andy Flemming told Thursday's crowd.

The spectators, still gripped by Olympic euphoria since the games ended Aug. 4, soaked up the spectacles with relish.

They gushed when soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, partially paralyzed from a 1982 automobile accident, belted out "The Star Spangled Banner" as a bald eagle released from the cauldron tower soared to a handler at the opposite end of the stadium.

They cheered as Army Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman, who lost both legs in a 1994 skydiving accident, parachuted into a star formed by children on the field.

Even Blaze, the Paralympics' phoenix mascot, received an ovation when he emerged from a green glow atop the cauldron and glided down a guide wire to the stage. At the Olympic ceremony, mascot Izzy couldn't even get in the door.

For Olympic enthusiasts like Sue Anduze of Douglasville, Ga., the Paralympics constitute a needed shot in the arm.

"We're all feeling post-Olympic syndrome. This gives us a way to ease out of things a little bit," said Anduze, whose two teen-age daughters performed in the ceremony.

"Everybody went home and said, `We're so glad the Olympics are over.' Then they said, `What are we going to do now?"' she 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 co-workers.

"It's good to come out here because the days are pretty sad," Payne said. "With everybody leaving, it's tough. It's been much harder than I thought it would be."

Other attendees included International Olympic Committee head Juan Antonio Samaranch and Vice President Al Gore, who declared the games open.

"We know in our minds, in our hearts and in our souls that through the example of these athletes . . . disability does not discourage. Disability does not disadvantage. And disability does not, and must never, disqualify," Gore said.

Actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident in 1995, served as master of ceremonies, appearing onstage from a rotating platform to introduce the parade of athletes.

The athletes, rallying behind flags of their home countries, slowly processed around the track before taking their place on the field.

Featured headliners Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Liza Minnelli and Hall & Oates had to compete with a crush of local volunteers. A choir of 5,000 gospel singers, a 1,000-member children's choir and hundreds of teens from school marching bands, church choirs and dance studios throughout the Atlanta area all had their moment in the spotlight.

But the solitary figure of Wellman, climbing with the flame dangling beneath him, stole the show.

After losing use of his legs in a mountain climbing accident in 1982, he went on to climb the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park using only his arms. He's also competed in two winter Paralympics.

At the top of the 184-foot tower, Wellman raised the torch triumphantly before lighting a fuse that set the cauldron ablaze shortly after midnight.