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!
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.
But 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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