When Atlanta (and UGA) grabbed the rings

Olympic soccer at a hedge-less Sanford Stadium. (Growing Up in Athens, Ga.)

Olympic soccer at a hedge-less Sanford Stadium. (Growing Up in Athens, Ga.)

Fifteen years ago Tuesday I began probably the most intense 17 days I’ve ever known as the Centennial Olympic Games finally got under way.

Recently a friend on Facebook was soliciting memories of the Atlanta Games and a flood of them came back to me: the crush of people from all over the world, the “flea market” downtown, passing the SWAT teams under the railroad trestle as I drove in every morning to work on the AJC’s daily Olympic Extra … and soccer at Sanford Stadium!

The UGA Olympics memorial and Stegeman Coliseum draped in its Atlanta Games colors. (University of Georgia)

The UGA Olympics memorial and Stegeman Coliseum draped in its Atlanta Games colors. (University of Georgia)

UGA was just about guaranteed a major Olympic role by virtue of former Dawg Billy Payne heading up the Games, but Athens ended up being the largest Olympic venue site outside Atlanta, playing host to some 650,000 visitors for events at three venues: men’s and women’s soccer in Sanford Stadium and volleyball preliminaries and rhythmic gymnastics in Stegeman Coliseum.

An estimated 50,000 people lined the streets of the Classic City four days before the Games opened when the Olympic Torch Relay made its way through the campus, with UGA Olympians Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain carrying the torch past the Coliseum and Payne running it down the field at Sanford Stadium, handing off to his old coach, Vince Dooley. UGA also welcomed the Australian and Swedish Olympic teams for pre-Games training.

And the university saw one of the highlights of the entire Games when the U.S. women’s soccer team, led by Mia Hamm, beat China for the gold medal before a crowd of 76,481, to that date the largest ever to witness a women´s sporting event.

My son Bill and I were on hand at Sanford Stadium the next night for the bronze medal game between Brazil and Portugal in men’s football or “football messieurs” as the roster sheet called it, and it was unforgettable. With the famed hedges having been temporarily removed to accommodate a bigger playing field, the field itself having been flattened, and all that Centennial Olympics green dressing up the place, it was a strange experience, like being in some sort of “Fringe” alternate universe version of the familiar stadium.

Actually, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a soccer game played at Sanford. Back around 1967 Phil Woosnam brought the original Atlanta Chiefs to the stadium one Saturday for an exhibition game Between the Hedges against the UGA men’s soccer club. I remember the genial Welshman and my mother, also from Wales, chatting on the field after the match and him expressing amazement that such a large stadium was devoted to college sports. “One day,” he said, “I hope to see this place filled for soccer.”

And here we were, with the Olympics having made that vision come true! It was, as my son said, a “surreal” experience.

atlanta olympics bannerBut surreal is a pretty apt description of the entire 17 days, which was just the capper to a journey that started five years and 10 months earlier on Sept. 18, 1990, when after a nearly three-year campaign Atlanta was chosen to host the ’96 Olympics and the city’s populace went absolutely mad. Remember the “It’s Atlanta” front page? (My daughter Olivia has one on her bedroom wall.)

Actually, by the time 1996 finally arrived, I was pretty fed up with the ceaseless talk of the Olympics and ready for it all just to be over.

At least, that’s how I thought I felt. But as the Games drew closer and we at the Journal and Constitution prepared for around-the-clock blanket coverage, I couldn’t help but feel the anticipation grow.

A few weeks earlier, my son and I had attended a track and field festival that marked the opening of the new 83,100-seat Olympic Stadium, complete with all the big names like Carl Lewis and Gwen Torrance. Primarily because of young Bill’s mounting excitement, I had not been totally immune to Olympic fever, and I had paid for a pair of family bricks to be inscribed in the new Centennial Olympic Park carved out of a warehouse wasteland to provide the city with a glittering central gathering place, complete with those amazing Olympic Rings water fountains.

Still, it was almost as an afterthought that I popped a tape into the VCR to record the Opening Ceremonies. I thought it was a decent show by Olympic standards, though I cringed a bit when the fleet of chrome pickup trucks was circling the field. Did we really have to embrace that particular stereotype?

But when it was time for the evening’s big reveal around midnight on July 19, and the best-kept secret in Atlanta history was unveiled as the spotlights hit Muhammad Ali, holding the torch in his trembling hand and lighting the Olympic Caldron — in what NBC’s Bob Costas still cites as his all-time greatest Olympic moment — I felt an unexpected swell of emotion.

The next two and a half weeks were definitely different for our family. My wife Leslie, who normally worked three days a week at the paper, was on temporary full-time working nights, and since publication of the Journal was suspended for the duration, as part of the Journal desk I was working mornings on the Olympic Extra daily that the AJC put out each afternoon (yes, even on Sundays, which probably made us the world’s only Sunday afternoon newspaper!). 
The AJC wasn’t the only one putting out a special Olympic publication — USA Today, which published seven days a week for the duration of the Games, and Sports Illustrated also had their own Olympic dailies. And reporters and TV crews from around the world were everywhere.

It was disorienting enough that my days off were Tuesday and Wednesday, but the city we were working in was like some Technicolor fantasy version of the Atlanta we normally know. Leslie recalls how weird it felt to come out of work in the early hours of the morning and find the streets packed with people. And while the city took some shots from the world’s media for turning its streets into a sort of Olympic bazaar with all manner of souvenir stands and temporary restaurants and entertainment venues, I’ve got to tell you, it made for a nice change from the normal roll-up-the-sidewalks-at-dusk downtown Atlanta experience of stepping over the homeless and ignoring panhandlers as you make your way to your car to head home. For those two weeks, downtown Atlanta was actually interesting and fun, even if you weren’t going to one of the Olympic athletic events!

Besides the soccer game in Athens, we did do the Olympics as a family in other ways, attending some men’s and women’s basketball games at the Georgia Dome. And my son went with friends over to Birmingham that first Olympic weekend to watch some of the preliminary soccer games.
We also went several times to the park — young Bill had gotten caught up in the fervor of collecting and trading Olympic pins and he had quite good luck swapping some of the extras of the in-demand AJC pins I’d gotten at work.

Leslie even took Olivia, who was only 2, downtown to see the world famous Clydesdales, stabled just down the street from the paper, across from CNN Center. (It’s my daughter’s only memory of the Atlanta Games).

It was a great time to be in the city.

Then, a week and one hour after Ali had lit the flame, a nail bomb at the park resulted in two deaths and briefly shattered Atlanta’s good vibe. But the folks running the Olympics were determined that a terrorist act wasn’t going to derail the Games, and two days later my son and I were on hand as the eloquence of former Mayor Andrew Young and a stirring performance by a gospel choir marked the official reopening of the 21-acre park.

The city and the Games recovered from the deadly blast, but the atmosphere was never quite as giddy again during the remaining week of the Olympics.

Finally, when it was over, the city seemed sort of like a fairground the day after the carnival has moved on.

Some of the after effects of the Games were temporary — for a year or two the blue line in the streets marking the Olympic marathon route was still visible — while others were permanent. The Olympic Village became dorms for Georgia State University.

And the city lost an old landmark, as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium came down, and gained a new one. But not one called Olympic Stadium. Instead, that venue was rebuilt into a smaller 47,000-seat stadium for the Atlanta Braves now known as Turner Field. (The seats where my son and I sat at the grand opening no longer exist; they’d be about where the plaza behind the giant video screen is now.)
 I think “the Ted” is a cool ball field, but I find it a bit sad that Atlanta no longer has an Olympic Stadium of its own like Berlin and Montreal.

But Centennial Olympic Park is still the city’s main gathering place. And although it took several years after the Games for the anticipated rebirth of downtown Atlanta to begin materializing, thanks to the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola and more attractions to come, it seems like the promise of the Games as a transformative experience for the city might finally be fulfilled.

Maybe it wasn’t really the “greatest peacetime event in the history of the world,” as Payne grandly proclaimed, but those 17 days in July and August of 1996 were a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many Georgians.

Good times, as my son would say.

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65 comments Add your comment


July 16th, 2011
10:33 am

Nice article, as usual, Bill.

Lowcountry Bulldawg

July 16th, 2011
10:40 am

Perhaps your best article yet.


July 16th, 2011
10:45 am

Brings back good memories. My two sons and I attended a baseball game in old Fulton County Stadium, then walked over to the Ted for track and field. The boys are grown now, but it seems like yesterday.


July 16th, 2011
11:21 am

fire michael carvell for failure to communicate any good info about dawg nite—–

iowa dog

July 16th, 2011
12:26 pm

I have 7 olympic state of ga tags that i have been saving for years if anyone is interested.


July 16th, 2011
12:29 pm

Seeing the US women’s soccer win and receive the gold medal in a revamped Sanford was special. On the mens side Athens kind of adopted the Nigerian team as they made an unlikely run deep into the tourney. The poor guys stayed at one of the dumpier motels on Atlanta Highway and you could see them walking to K-mart along the road during the day. At night they would congregate at a downtown Tex-Mex restaurant and we partied with them like e knew each other all our lives. We can learn a little about the spirit and team loyalty of international soccer community

P. Bull Terrier

July 16th, 2011
12:33 pm

Imagine how covering the Olympics in Atlanta for the AJC would be different today. Forget driving to the office to help write the 16 page pull-out special section. Just post a blog question, “Sanford Stadium – Better Without The Hedges?”, roll over, go back to sleep, and let the Georgia and Georgia Tech fans debate the issue for the rest of the day.


July 16th, 2011
1:01 pm

Great stuff Bill. And the part about Phil Woosnam hit home. Atlanta’s first Championship team. I remember so vividly them beating English Champions Manchester City not once but twice in the Summer of 68 before packed houses at the Launching pad.

I was stationed in Germany during the 96 games but caught every moment possible since German TV actually covers the events, unlike our friends at NBC. The bomb was sad, but the city and state recovered to do very well. Still by far the most attended Games ever. That speaks volumes.


July 16th, 2011
1:03 pm

Seems like a century ago. I remember my wife and I watching as the Olympic torch passed our house as it traveled through north Atlanta. We might have gone to Olympic park the night of the bombing, except thankfully not since we had been a number of times before. We enjoyed the atmosphere without even going to an athletic event. Did see the opening of the stadium, as there was some team trials track and field before the olympics opened. It sure did look different from Turner Field.
I also remember going to the GA-Aub game the previous year. As that was the last game played at our beloved Sanford stadium before the Hedges were “officially” removed for the olympics. Nasty weather, nasty game, as people were ripping apart the Hedges trying to get their souvenir. It was a sad sight to see. I never realized the hedges were supported by fencing until I saw them bared that night. I must admit I have a few of the Hedges still framed from that evening. Wonder whatever happened to the Hedges that people tried to re-plant at their homes?
And I was at the 1st game the Hedges were brought back from their secret secured nursery. As the originals (seeds were it?) were re-planted and then re-flourished. They remain as beloved as UGA.

Dawg 39

July 16th, 2011
1:18 pm

The day after the “Bomb” my wife & I went to the site because we wanted to show that we believed that it was safe & that the “Games” should continue as scheduled. It took more than that to detract Georgians from supporting the “Games”.


July 16th, 2011
1:24 pm

I remember dancing with a girl from Australia to a Beatles band playing downtown somewhere.

We ended up seeing Jerry Lee Lewis at the Tabernacle.

GA Dawg

July 16th, 2011
1:36 pm

Remember all the fear for the traffic that never happened?
The roads were empty.
Loved it when all the people left town in fear.
And how about all those get rich quick house rental schemes went bust.
The only people that got rich were Bill Campbell and his cronies. What a joke the Olympic “flea market” was and the pick-up truck ceremonies. Oh yeah, and that mascot thing. That went over well. Embarrasing. Too many people had to have their hand in the pot (i.e. Bill Campbell and civil rights hypocrites) as Billy Payne so accurately detailed in interviews later.

GA Dawg

July 16th, 2011
1:40 pm

BTW, don’t forget the International Olympic Committee and their thiefs, topped by their own Head Thief Juan Samaranch or whatever his name. Is he finally dead?

Old Dawg

July 16th, 2011
1:44 pm

Nice piece, Bill. That was an amazing summer for many of us in Georgia. A couple of olympic teams practiced in Madison and I was able to produced some great copy from that. The soccer games in Athens were a real treat, and the Red and Black spring game at Clark Central was a lot of fun for my son and I.

Thanks for brining back the memories.


July 16th, 2011
1:57 pm

Forgot about the spring game being move to Clarke Central.
That was different. Any big time recruiting grab from that spring game that year?


July 16th, 2011
2:35 pm

I was at the Opening Ceremonies, and there were tears and gasps all around when Ali appeared with the torch. It was a wonderful moment that I will never forget. As a matter of fact, outside of the trucks, the ceremony was wonderully done and made me proud to be a native.

just a fan

July 16th, 2011
3:28 pm

I was 16 when the games came to Atlanta and had a blast went to 4 or 5 different events with boxing being my favorite. It was an incredible time for the city and to be a part of it was unbelievable. Great article Bill brings back fond memories.


July 16th, 2011
3:33 pm

Nice story. I worked in Media Transportation Center, which we were told, was the biggest disaster of the games. Buses and drivers were brought from all over the US. The drivers were given maps and a set of bus keys. They had no idea what they were getting in to. They were constantly lost and constantly late. Atlanta got ripped by the foreign media because they had problems getting to the out of town venues. Some of the media were great people, some were . . . not.
We did see Muhammed Ali come through–becsuse he was brought to the wrong center. An Irish sportswriter absolutley beside himself because an Irish boxer had won in an upset. An eastern Asian writer too drunk to remember where he hotel was and a variety of very well dressed females in various states of inebriation. They had gotten on the wrong bus and were escorted to Piedmont and left at the gate.
I loved it and would do it again in a minute.

Dirty Dawg

July 16th, 2011
3:35 pm

I too was fortunate enough to be at the opening ceremony…for some reason I recognized Muhammad Ali almost before the light hit him and all I recall was raising my arms as if calling a touchdown and shouting ‘MUHAMMAD’…then the roar took over the night…it indeed was an absolutely thrilling moment.

As for Campbell and his cronies, I assure you none of them ‘got rich’ on the deal. Matter of fact the thing that motivated them to even try was when they realized that the only people that weren’t making a killing on those Olympics was the City. People I knew that knew the ’skinny’, talked openly about how Billy and the ‘inner circle’ of the Organizing Committee were absolutely ‘in on the deal’ when it came to pocketing millions. Guess it was probably worth it, but don’t for a minute thinks that they were just being altruistic.

Flat Tire on I-95 in Jacksonville

July 16th, 2011
4:42 pm

Allowing Muhamid Ali to light the torch was a disgrace and the most disgusting crap Ive seen

Why would I be excited to see him light the torch for our country; someone who was anti American and who threw his medals in the river to be a draft dodger

He’s a disgrace

Give me a break Bill


July 16th, 2011
5:04 pm

Nice read, good memories. I remember spending quite a lot of time at the Planet Hollywood which was where the athletes went after their events. Still have a picture of Dan Jansen after he came in. Added plus? Easiest 2 weeks driving into work ever.

UGA '79

July 16th, 2011
5:19 pm

Instead of this Chamber of Commerce pimp-crap, why aren’t you measuring Donnan for a striped suit on the chain gang?


July 16th, 2011
6:29 pm

Bill, very nice article reminiscing about the Atlanta Olympic Games . . . I worked closely with Billy Payne, el.al., as part of the Atlanta Organizing Committee bidding for the Games; was in Tokyo when we won; and recall the huge reception and subsequent parade we received upon returning to Atlanta. Lots of fond memories from that era.

Paul in RDU

July 16th, 2011
7:42 pm

In the 1996 bronze medal game some 16 year old kid named Ronaldinho scored Brazil’s first goal to send them on their way to victory. I think he did quite well for himself in his career.

Bill King

July 16th, 2011
9:43 pm

Thanks for the reminder of the G-Day game being played at Clarke Central. I was there and that REALLY took me back, to my years cheering on the AHS Trojans in Death Valley and the summer I spent before my senior year in high school helping sand and paint the bleachers.

i remember......

July 16th, 2011
10:22 pm

i remember when uga had a good football team and we could spend our time talking football instead of thinking about stuff that happend 15 years ago and sanding and painting bleachers……..


July 16th, 2011
11:01 pm

Just pulled out all my Olympic pins the other day. I remember how trading was the thing to do down at COP. I put them all in shadow boxes and hung them up without even thinking that the 15th anniversary was upon us. Good times indeed.

Ray Goff

July 16th, 2011
11:23 pm

I heard something about Jim Donnen being involved in a pizza scheme? What does that mean?

Texas Dawg

July 16th, 2011
11:33 pm

I was in Sanford Stadium for the women’s Gold Medal win. It was and still is the greatest sporting event I have witnessed.

Ca dawg

July 17th, 2011
12:52 am

Lol ray goff.


July 17th, 2011
1:04 am

Atlanta’s Olympic experience was an opportunity lost. Billy Payne was an awful administrator and his cadre of buddies were incompetent.
Where is Atlanta’s Olympic legacy? Where was its benefit for Atlanta and Georgia like Los Angeles enjoyed?
Why would the Olympic committee NOT consider Atlanta for a future Games?
What a shame, Billy Payne, what a shame!


July 17th, 2011
4:22 am

Homeowners with an FHA-insured loan may find a conventional mortgage refinance reduces their monthly housing expenditures, best one out there is “123 Refinancing”


July 17th, 2011
6:39 am

Thanks for the memories, Bill. The Olympics might not have been perfect, but, who wants perfection. We need to learn to enjoy life and be thankful for what we have. The only thing I would add is thanks to the thousands of volunteers who made the event 15 years ago an enjoyable time.


July 17th, 2011
6:54 am

That was a fine read – it painted things exactly as I remember them.

Mr. Dawg

July 17th, 2011
7:44 am

Good article. I vividly remember the electric feeling in the air each and everytime I went into town for an event. One night we sat behind actor Jack Nicholson during the boxing at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. As another post mentioned, the rampant anxiety of heavy traffic apparently scared most drivers off as I came and went as I pleased. Any grumpy reporter that had a problem with the local transit system must have forgotten that rental cars exist. While some of those same reporters and others like Samaranche of the IOC were critical of the way the Atlanta OC met their budget with what they perceived as an heavy dose of commercialism, I applaud the AOC for not leaving Altanta with heavy debt. Most other previous host cities were generally not successful in that respect. I recall hearing that Montreal was still in debt for the 76 Games when we hosted them 20 years later. In my mind the visual aesthetic of the Atlanta Games were great.. The bottom line is my hometown hosted a successful Olympic Games and afforded me the opportunity to witness them in my lifetime. For that I feel very fortunate.


July 17th, 2011
8:43 am

I’ll remember taking my daughter who was 8 years old at the time to a track and field pre-lim event at what became Turner Field.

We sat in the same row as Johnny Cochran of OJ fame. I’m sure Tiffany Cochran was there too but she did not yet have the local notoriety.

We saw Gold Shoes Johnson won one of the prelim 200 if I recall.

We toured the park and saw where the bomb went off.


July 17th, 2011
10:31 am

Enter your comments hereCheck out this letter from a former GT player. I really can’t run these guys in the ground as annoying as the trolls may be.


Dr. Warren

July 17th, 2011
10:36 am

I went to the Beijing Games. And let me assure you–Beijing did not compare to those three weeks I spent in my hometown of Atlanta in ‘96. The atmosphere was tense and guarded in Beijing and as artificial as they could possibly have been. Sure, the pick-up trucks in Atlanta were stupid, but the ‘96 Olympics capped a rise from the ashes for a region that had once violated the fundamental principle of democracy, been destroyed for it, and finally, impossibly found itself on the world stage representing the best humanity has to offer. It was a festive occasion to say the least. And say what you want about Billy Payne, Andrew Young, and even Bill Campbell, but I’ll take them any day over the thugs that reign supreme–and I do mean reign–in Beijing.


July 17th, 2011
10:44 am

Ali was a traitor.

And so says Flat Tire on I-95 in Jacksonville, the Nationalist extremist who favors killing the young sons of America to cater to the political class like a good citizen serf.

Way to go Flat Tire on I-95 in Jacksonville. BTW, what sacrifices have you made for the political class since you’re such a faithful follower, kind of like the Hitler Youth. Keep up the boot licking citizen zombie. You’re doing a fine job.

The Olympics were fun.

Flat Tire on I-95 in Jacksonville

July 17th, 2011
12:56 pm


Thank you for your socialist traitor supporting serfdom you call your hero Muhamed Ali

Ali like your political and presidential candidate hero John Carry wanted to protest the war and mock those boys calling them baby killers who served in that war

I remind you that Hitler like ALi denounced the government of Germany

My family is loaded with those who have served

The only thing you have served is marching for anti-american candidates and flag burning idiots like yourself

Keep up the good work its working, your protests have allowed a socialist in office


July 17th, 2011
12:59 pm

The 2 weeks in 1996 will be a time I will never forget. I did not make it over to Athens, but I attended some 18 events over the period and will especially remember Michael Johnson in track in field at what is now Turner Field.

I also remember vividly to walking out my front door on a Sunday morning wondering why all the helicopters were hovering overhead. The women’s marathon was passing 100 feet from my house and we all ran outside to cheer the runners on. What a wonderful time for Atlanta!

History Smiles

July 17th, 2011
1:30 pm

Reality… you are out of touch with yourself. The legacy of Atlanta was a modern day Olympic Games that ended in the black, and left multiple physical facilities for the state, city and other communities to enjoy – Centennial Olympic Park, GA State Dorms, Turner field etc. All were built with private and sponsor dollars. Seems like a decent impact to me.

Dr. Warren

July 17th, 2011
3:08 pm

After fewer than 10 years, the GA State dorms fell into serious disrepair, eventually were sold to GA Tech for $70 million, and then had to be completely refurbished at a huge cost to the state. Apparently, one entire wall of bricks was separated from the building and about to crash down. The original contractor, probably one of Maynard Jackson’s cronies, apparently did a lovely job.


July 17th, 2011
3:28 pm

It benefited many areas of the state with MANY facilities, publicity, money, memories, etc.

Speaking of Los Angeles….seems like Atlanta is un MUCH better shape than LA currently. Maybe you live too close to ATL to realize what the perspective from the rest of th country and world is. All Olympics have successes and failings. A bombing always puts a huge damper on many areas. Overall could have been better but could definately been worse.

Aki was awesome. You never do ANYTHING wrong? You stuck in the 60’s? You have no forgiveness? He was young and paid his DEBT to society but not to you immature, incorrect, narrow-minded unforgiving hypocrites. You might be 70 but you can still not be mature yet in some ways. Have you never done something you wish you might have handled differently when you were younger? He served his time. He took a stand. Right or wrong. He did not HURT anyone or commit a hate crime, etc. Ali was the BEST part of the ATL Olympics for MOST people. Glad we can get past the past instead of holding grudges or withold unforgivemess in our hearts for 40 years. Grow up.

Get over it you “perfect” people who obviosuly did not NEED Jesus to go to the cross for you. You can cast stones at Ali since you are blameless your ENTIRE life! Beg my pardon.

FL dawg

July 17th, 2011
7:10 pm

Atlanta,scars run deep, cut like the streams in the foothills to her north. There a crisp fear in the first winds of winter as real as her sins of summer. Atlanta, time stands still in some ways for you. Lusty lady with the heartbeat of the south in her bosom.


July 17th, 2011
7:32 pm

Good article on the upcoming season Bill. The guy at Jiffy Lube must have been on vacation this week and couldn’t offer his insights.


July 17th, 2011
7:41 pm

Good article, Bill (and this is coming form a Yellow Jacket). Those were good times for Atlanta.


July 17th, 2011
10:35 pm

Don’t worry. flat tire finds whatever divisive and controversial thing to say and puts it out there. Either he just needs to have his ego stroked or he works for the ajc. Don’t take him seriously.


July 17th, 2011
11:48 pm

Deja Vu Delusional Dawgs

July 17th, 2011
11:55 pm

Bill, this was a great article because you dealt in facts. If only you could do the same about Georgia football.