The Amazing, Tragic, Iconic and Surprising Legacy of the 1996 Olympic Games

In the summer of 1996, all eyes were on Georgia for the greatest sports event on Earth. Twenty years after hosting the Centennial Olympic Games, how has its legacy changed the state?

Twenty years ago this month, Atlanta pulled off an amazing feat of hospitality, economic development, infrastructure improvements, civic pride and just plain fun that some folks weren’t actually sure would happen right up until the start of the Opening Ceremony.

It was a two-week period that brought the world to the South, when the city hosted the Centennial Olympic Games, July 19 through Aug. 4, 1996. The event puts Atlanta in the elite company of only three cities in the U.S. (St. Louis in 1904 and Los Angeles in 1932 and 1984) and among some of the great cities in the world – London, Tokyo, Beijing and, of course, the cradle of the Olympics, Athens (the one in Greece, not Georgia).

But, 20 years removed, as we emerge from a recession, as we continue to deal with transportation issues, as we see a generation too young to remember the Games that made their mark on Atlanta come of age, does it still matter that we hosted the greatest sporting event in the world?

Absolutely, says everyone who was interviewed for this story. But to understand the ways it still matters, a brief history lesson – or trip down memory lane, if you lived in Georgia during the Centennial Olympic Games – is in order.

Let the Games Begin

Billy Payne, the father of the Atlanta Olympics, says he was standing in church talking to the congregation about their new sanctuary – Payne chaired the fundraising committee for the structure. The congregants were excited and happy to be worshipping in their new home, and Payne wanted that good feeling, brought on by coming together for a larger purpose, to go on. The time was right, he thought, for Atlanta to pursue the Olympics – that was 1987. It wasn’t long before he and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) were off and running.

Atlanta was an underdog from the beginning. The U.S. had just hosted the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles; Athens (Greece, again) was the odds-on favorite to win the Centennial Games. Not to mention that at that time Atlanta was a Southern town people outside the U.S. had almost uniformly never heard of. But Payne and his crew of committed fundraisers and cheerleaders changed all that. They glad-handed, schmoozed, begged, borrowed and ultimately brought us the world.

When you ask Payne what he remembers most fondly about that period, it’s not the dignitaries, athletes, fundraising, fine dining and all that went along with pitching the city. No, he thinks just a moment, then says that on a grand scale, what he remembers most is the way the people of Atlanta and Georgia came together to get the work – and there was plenty of it – done for the bid process and the Olympics.

“It was the positive approach to everything that we did, notwithstanding the difficulty of it all,” he says, that got the work done. “I think what carried us past the finish line, both with the bid and the games, was our people were so happy to invite and then to welcome the world to our city and to show it off.”

The people Payne mentions included 100,000 staff and volunteers. Local corporations ponied up most of the $7.5 million spent on the bid campaign. Private funding to the tune of $1.7 billion was poured into the games, along with government support for housing, infrastructure and security.

And while security was tight – remember, this was pre-9/11 – it wasn’t quite tight enough to avert tragedy. Eric Rudolph set off a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park that killed one person outright, caused the heart attack death of another and injured more than 100.

Despite the tragedy, the games are remembered, especially here at home, as successful, in part because of such iconic moments as the late Muhammad Ali, shaky with Parkinson’s disease, lighting the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony; Michael Johnson becoming the only man to win 200m and 400m gold medals at a single Olympics – while wearing gold shoes; and Kerri Strug, who despite an injured ankle, nailed the landing on her second vault, securing gold for the women’s gymnastics team. She was carried to the medals podium by her coach Béla Károlyi.

“The venues and competitions were great – seats filled and enthusiastic crowds,” recalls Lisa Delpy Neirotti, associate professor of sport management in the business school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the Olympic Games who also attended the Atlanta games that summer.

Smart Thinking

Olympic organizers were determined to build facilities and venues that would have life beyond the Games – and in many instances, they succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings. In fact, experts say the thoughtful design of Olympic facilities for a life after the Games is what’s set Atlanta and the state apart from other host cities.

While hulking stadiums are often left empty and abandoned in other countries, we found a way to use the infrastructure to our advantage. Even 20 years out, many of the $600 million in venues are still in use – providing new generations an opportunity to compete in world-class facilities.

“The community benefited greatly in terms of new dorms, a pool and a baseball field paid primarily by Olympic money,” Neirotti says. “Centennial Park should also be more highly touted as a legacy.”

We’ll get to the park in a minute. First up, Turner Field, which was born as Olympic Stadium. It was the site of track and field events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies – but it was designed to be readily converted to a baseball stadium as soon as the games ended.

The Braves have called the Ted home for 20 years. Next year the team will move to the new SunTrust Park in Cobb County, and Georgia State University will breathe life into the former Olympic Stadium area. Plans include a football stadium for the GSU Panthers, a baseball field, private student housing, rental housing, single-family homes and retail.

The Ted was also the site of the 2000 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. “Talk about an event impacting a future event, with the Olympic Games and Turner Field being built, [we were able to bring the All-Star Game] to Turner Field four years later,” says Dan Corso, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s Sports Council. “It’s a byproduct of having that venue in place.”

Georgia Tech’s aquatic center, a $21-million facility used for swimming and diving, is now part of Tech’s recreation center, which in 2014 was named by Men’s Health magazine as one of the coolest college recreation centers in the country.

Other facilities still in use include the equestrian center in Conyers, the largest venue built for the games. It is now the award-winning Georgia International Horse Park and event center. Unique Venues magazine named it Best Outdoor Event Space last year.

Clayton County International Park, home to beach volleyball in 1996, has added another notch in its claim to fame. It was one of the sites for the filming of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. And along the coast, the Savannah Sailing Center, host of the Olympic yachting events, continues to offer high school and middle school sailing, summer camps and sailing instructor training.

Some venues haven’t fared quite so well. The tennis center at Stone Mountain has been unused for years. In Columbus, the city is looking for a potential use for Golden Park, the home of women’s softball. The site was given by the state to the city of Columbus for recreational purposes. With the venue in decline, the city is exploring new possibilities for the facility.

One of the most successful venues has been the Lake Lanier Olympic Park, site of the ’96 rowing and kayaking events. The facility continues to host world-class canoeing, kayaking, rowing and even a dragon-boat race and is undergoing a $1.6-million renovation.

Morgan House, a Gainesville native and Olympic-level kayaker, who has coached both canoeing and kayaking and attended the Atlanta games, is the current facility manager.

“I was 9 years old at the time [of the Atlanta Games]. I went to rowing and kayaking at the venue where I work now,” House says. “I had started kayaking the year before. But that’s really what inspired me to keep going with it.

“We’re upgrading the timing tower … really beautifying it because it has not been touched since the 1996 Olympics,” House says. “We’re also installing an ADA-accessible ramp to the second floor of the tower because there’s never been an easily accessible way to get to the tower.”

They’re also polishing up the Olympic rings that were made after the games out of metal that was used to construct the temporary stands at the venue. “Those rings have been sitting and somewhat deteriorating over the last 20 years. We’re going to have them sandblasted and repainted,” House says.

Not only is the racecourse one of the best in the world, according to House, who has competed around the globe, it also has a huge economic impact on the Gainesville area.

“Last fiscal year we had an economic impact of $6.8 million,” he says. “This year we’re expecting an economic impact of approximately $10 million.” More than money, though, he stresses the importance to local residents and the state. “It is a local draw in that we have a park. It’s also a state, national and global draw for various events, [including the] Pan American Games. It really draws people from all over the world.”

The Beating Heart

As big an impact as various venues have had around the state, the spot that’s become the centerpiece of redevelopment and memories – both good and bad – and continues to draw tourists by the thousands is Centennial Olympic Park.

“Atlanta did an excellent job using the Olympic venues as a catalyst to reinvent the city,” says William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Today, Centennial Olympic Park is surrounded by tourism product, including the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, [National] Center for Civil and Human Rights, Children’s Museum of Atlanta, College Football Hall of Fame and CNN Studio Tours.”

Those tourist sites have also brought more than 300 places to eat within a mile of the area, he adds, not to mention thousands of hotel rooms, new housing options and development at both Georgia State University and Georgia Tech.

“I think Centennial Olympic Park has changed our community in a positive way,” says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. “It essentially took the west side of Peachtree Street that really was occupied by some older industrial buildings and opened it up in a way that I don’t think anyone could have imagined.

“Then, of course, the areas around the park – to the south, the west, the east – have gone through tremendous changes with hotels, condominiums, the College Football Hall of Fame and on and on. Physically it’s just amazing what the park has done.”

Twenty years and millions of visitors later, the park is set for its own revitalization – to the tune of $25 million. Expected to begin in late 2016 and last for a couple of years, projects include a pedestrian gateway, the demolition of the Metro Atlanta Chamber building to create more park space, a new operations building, amphitheater expansion and remaking the park entrance.

The Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which oversees the park, has also unveiled plans for a new memorial to honor the people who were instrumental in bringing the Games to Atlanta. The “Early Believers Tribute” includes a plaza with statues and benches and the names of the “Atlanta Nine,” Payne’s friends who were the force behind securing the bid. The goal is to have the memorial ready in time for the 20th anniversary celebration July 16.

“We witness every day all the conventions that come to the World Congress Center and concerts that take place at the park and all those types of things that are true legacies,” says Metro Atlanta Chamber President and CEO Hala Moddelmog from her perch at the soon-to-be-demolished MAC building. “I think its immeasurable what the Olympics did for this city.”

“I don’t really think the physical legacy is the story of the games,” says Payne, “with the possible exception of Centennial Park. I think it stands apart from all the rest. Every day [it] proclaims itself as the most vibrant and important physical legacy of the games.”

Lasting Legacy

While venues may be the most visible legacy of the Olympic Games, they aren’t the reasons the Olympics still matter in Georgia. In fact, the most important things to come out of the Games aren’t what you can see or hold in your hand, though they are things you can feel and share with others.

“What we learned how to do is to work together, to pull in the same direction in order to achieve this goal of getting the Olympics here,” Corso says. “That has also carried forward into global commerce and relocation of corporations to Metro Atlanta and growing this economy and recruiting other major sports events here. The Olympics taught us how to do that together.”

That’s a skill that matters very much to this day, says Moddelmog. “To be frank, when we’re traveling globally, many people and companies from around the world really don’t know a whole lot about Atlanta. The thing they always know is the Olympics. The legacy has created billions of [dollars of] economic impact in this market.”

It’s a legacy that will continue far into the future, she believes.

“We just launched something called ChooseATL, and it’s really a marketing movement targeted toward millennials,” Moddelmog says. “We did an ethnographical study to find out what Atlantans thought was great about Atlanta. One of the things people said was, ‘Atlanta is a place that can make things happen.’”

Robinson is quick to agree. “I think Atlanta as a city has always punched above its weight,” he says. “You look at our history, there’s always either a person or a movement like the Olympics that comes along and says ‘why not us?’ The Olympics represented the epitome of that concept. If a committed group of people want to accomplish something in Atlanta, the Olympics is probably the most difficult and unlikely thing to do, and yet we did it.

“I think that kind of spiritual legacy is really still out there,” he says. “It’s still part of the DNA of Atlanta, that it is an open city with lots of opportunity [for] others to come and fulfill whatever dream they have, including big dreams.”

“[That reputation] gives us a lot of credibility,” Moddelmog says. “[People may have] really big visions and really big dreams, but you get a few people together who have the vision and you can make things happen in Atlanta. And that’s a very good message for us around the country and the globe.”

She cites the Atlanta BeltLine as a prime example of a huge project that may not have happened without the Olympics. “The BeltLine started out as a dream, a project. It is about thinking up something pretty audacious, pretty special, and it’s also known around the world as the biggest reclamation project. It’s back to the fact that people in Atlanta can make big things happen.”

The city’s reputation for making things happen has made Atlanta home to thousands of international companies. These are homegrown companies like Coke and The Home Depot, but also upscale newcomers like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz and includes 25 Fortune 1000 headquarters.

That legacy has also led to major sports events, including a couple of Super Bowls – Atlanta will host one again in 2019 – Final Four basketball championships and bowl games, not to mention Hawks, Falcons and Braves games on a regular basis, collegiate sporting events and the recent additions of professional soccer – Atlanta United FC – and lacrosse – Atlanta Blaze.

“In the process of pursuing these [sporting] events, all cities do the same thing. We like to showcase our roster or our portfolio,” Corso says. “The Olympics is at the top of the list each year. Each time we go after something, we talk about ‘what’s your experience hosting events?’ An event owner, like the NCAA, wants to know that their event’s going to be in good hands. They want to go to a city that has experience hosting major events because they want to be successful. They see the Olympics on the top of the list, and that provides a good message.”

“The games also opened the door for international tourism,” says Pate, “which continues to grow and will be our most significant opportunity for incremental visitation over the next two decades.

“The Olympics gave Atlanta incredible visibility across the country and the world, and it still remains one of the most important events in the city’s history. Twenty years later, Atlanta hosts almost 50 million visitors a year from across the U.S.,” Pate says. “We are also one of the top 15 cities in the country for overseas visitation. We could not have achieved those milestones without the halo of the Olympics.”

Bragging rights aside, Payne speaks like a proud parent when he sums up what he believes the legacy is. “We as a community – a united community – we proposed what was honestly a preposterous, impossible idea. And yet, with the incredible energy and talent of this community and the sincerity with which they went about the effort, we pulled off the impossible. And that’s a great legacy because it says to me that we have that capability. It tells us that we should unite and coalesce around really big ideas for the community, because now we know that we can make them happen.”

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