Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Remembering July 19, 1996

As the sun set on July 19, 2016, many an Atlanta Olympic veteran likely spent time reminiscing.

On this evening 20 years ago, the Centennial Olympic Games opened with great music, Georgia luminaries, star athletes and even a parade of pickup trucks!

The anniversary may be bittersweet for some, considering the night's greatest surprise in 1996 -- Muhammad Ali, who greeted Janet Evans and the world with torch in hand -- died earlier this year, a month or so shy of again celebrating his favorite Games experience (Ali wrote in his autobiography how he could not sleep after lighting the cauldron).

During the last week or so, Atlanta media pulled out the stops for 20th anniversary coverage. 

Local NPR affiliate WABE-FM created a series reliving the 1996 Cultural Olympiad -- great reporting in collaboration with

The station also aired a one-hour special and even wrote up Nike's new for 2016 Atlanta '96-inspired sneakers 

It was fun to read about the Atlanta History Center's plans to update the Centennial Olympic exhibition, which will close in a few weeks and reopen next year -- visitors can enjoy one of the 1996 opening ceremony costumes (a giant fish puppet) now on view in the entrance lobby.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also created many column inches about Atlanta's Games, including a story about three couples who met and married while working at the Olympics (unmentioned with one couple's memories was my cameo role as neighbor encouraging a job application that led to their introduction).

The city and Centennial Olympic Park also pulled out many stops to host a 20th anniversary "Relive the Dream" celebration hosted by Billy Payne, Andrew Young and a cast of medal-winning athletes.

It was fun to spend Saturday catching up with old friends while meeting new contacts. 

Unfortunately, the "dream" evening on July 16 was not all fun and Games due to two lightning delays. Though they eventually got the party started and the content was fun, a handful of attendees took the organizers to task on Facebook with a few harsh but apt emoticons and comments. 

One of my public relations mentors, his wife, a longtime Olympic historian friend and I spent much of the event playing armchair quarterback to the organizers, ultimately deciding/lamenting the majority of the crowd enjoyed themselves but the event's disarray provided a snapshot of snafus parallel to the issues that played out in grand fashion during those 16 days and nights of 1996. 

The anniversary event scene came complete with crass street vendors, tents and credentials for the feted "haves" gazed upon by the excluded masses of "have nots" and other elements that frustrated many of the worker bees from two decades back. 

When I mentioned our observations to a prominent Olympic historian yesterday, he replied with his take that Atlanta was the "first Olympics at which most of the athletes were professionals and the organizers were all amateurs" -- hysterical! 

But, hey -- where would we be without the Atlanta Games experience? I am thankful Payne went to church and scribbled "Olympics" on his working list of community projects in 1988, and that the experiences afforded in 1996 put me on track to attend my 10th Games at Rio starting next week.

I also appreciate the hard work that went into the anniversary event.

This evening the Olympic news outlet Around The Rings hosted a fun party in honor of the Atlanta milestone, and some of my favorite memories of '96 came to mind:

-- Watching the Opening Ceremony live in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant with my sister, a fellow Olympic Village team member, before we returned to Georgia Tech for the late shift and athletes coming home for the evening

-- Getting acquainted with ACOG Communications Manager Dick Yarbrough and the organization's archivist during work hours (learned the most enriching and "real" Games stories from both of them)

-- Sharing many social gatherings with fellow 1995 USOC interns-turned-Atlantans during the pre-Games spring of '96

-- Following-up the ACOG experience with a bonus two months of Paralympic employment and an additional wave of fun times paired with hard work.

There are many Games-time friends with whom I've lost touch -- would love to reconnect with so many of these people. 

One person in particular is a Village volunteer who attended the University of Georgia. On the last night of the Atlanta Olympic Village, which was Aug. 6, 1996, the two of us visited 4,000 dorm rooms in search of Olympic pins, and I've missed the shared laughter over all the random stuff we discovered the athletes left behind. 

Here's hoping my long-lost friend Emily Sanders is out there and enjoying her Olympic memories as am I.

Photos via Yahoo, Nike, Atlanta History Center. Park photo copyright Nicholas Wolaver.


ADW Running said...

Remember going to the Atlanta Olympics as a kid and it certainly created lifelong memories, dreams, and passions. While I'm unfamiliar with what attending any other Olympics might have been like, I have never forgotten the magic of the Olympic scene and the volunteers and organizers were certainly a part of that. I'm sure given how these things work that the Olympics would never return to Atlanta, but hopefully some day the Summer Games will return to another US city and the memories and lessons learned in Atlanta will be able to be rekindled again. It would certainly be hard to ever improve upon that Opening Ceremony and torch lighting or how the country came together to watch Kerri Strugg vault on one good leg, but as with every Olympics there would assuredly be new unforeseen memories for a new generation.

Anonymous said...

One of the biggest Game ever in this world, People has always dream for this achievement.
Rio Olympic 2016

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