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After covering the Atlanta Olympics from the days of the bid in the late 1980’s, there was a sense of loss watching the flame in the caldron flicker out the night of Aug. 4, 1996 . Atlanta was my initiation into the world of the Olympics, a rite of passage. Wherever this Olympic journey would take me, I would always think of Atlanta as the home of the dream.

The Atlanta Olympics Closing Ceremony, Aug. 4, 1996. (Getty Images)

The 17 days of the Games (and the eight years before) were quite a ride. Sometimes magnificent, sometimes stumbling, tinged with tragedy, surrounded by triumphs, Atlanta marked a turning point for the city as well as the Olympics of today.

Mention Atlanta 1996 and the sneers still come easily for some who dealt with the challenges of the Games. Media transport did not work. The results system went into meltdown. The streets of downtown Atlanta turned into a peddler’s bazaar, rife with over-commercialization. Then the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing a spectator, injuring dozens.

Little wonder that IOC President Juan Antonio could summon only faint praise as he closed the Atlanta Olympics, describing them as “most exceptional”.

Maybe it is easier to remember flaws than all the things that worked as planned.

But the lists of pluses for Atlanta and the Olympic Movement that resulted from 1996 may be even longer than the faults.

Start with the athletes. Michael Johnson and Jose Marie Perec winning the 400/200 gold medals. The electrifying gold medal for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, tiny Kerri Strug nailing the win despite a busted ankle. Cuba wins baseball gold on U.S. soil. Pocket Hercules Naim Suleymanoglu wins a third consecutive weightlifting gold, Carl Lewis a fourth gold in the long jump. The second edition of the Dream Team dominated men’s basketball.

There were all kinds of Olympic debuts. Women’s football and softball added hundreds of women to the athletes roster for Atlanta. The IOC’s first stab at adding more youth-oriented sports to the program brought mountain biking and beach volleyball to sold-out venues.

Atlanta still holds the record for ticket sales: 8.1 million.

The fountains at Centennial Olympic Park. (ATR)

The absence of white elephants for Atlanta is remarkable. To one degree or another, every major venue built for 1996 has been put into use since then.

Atlanta Olympic Stadium is now Turner Field, home to the Braves Major League Baseball team. While some in the Olympics world quibble about using marketing revenues to pay for a venue used by a professional baseball team.

But there is no Olympic Stadium built for recent Games that can even come close to the level of regular activity for the Atlanta stadium.

As painful as the Olympic Park bombing was, the venue established the value of live sites as part of the ambience of the Olympics. And the catastrophe of Atlanta helped make sure that security was part of future live sites.

The 21-acre park, conceived by Atlanta Olympics chief Billy Payne two years after winning the Games, became a catalyst for new development in the center of Atlanta. The post-Olympic boom around the park includes the World of Coca Cola, the Georgia Aquarium, new hotels, restaurants and retail.

The Atlanta Olympics also generated a makeover of housing near the stadium, park and other venues. Dilapidated, crime-plagued housing and buildings were removed and replaced with new public and private housing that remains an often-overlooked legacy of 1996.

Atlanta’s foibles with media transport and the results system were other lessons learned by future organizing committees, which have largely avoided those glitches.

What hasn’t happened in Atlanta is much of an interest in Olympic sport, whether hosting events or inspiring new generations of fencers, judoka or heptathletes.

The Atlanta cauldron was moved a half a mile north from its original location and now anchors a corner of a parking lot for the former Olympic Stadium. (ATR)

While no white elephants remain, it might have been nice to see a world-class athletics track as part of the Atlanta legacy to the sport.

Others need some work. The rowing course at Lake Lanier is in need of repairs and maintenance to keep it as a competition venue. It’s the only one of the Atlanta venues that has hosted a world championship (canoeing, 2003) since the Olympics.

Then there’s the orphaned cauldron, lit in storybook fashion by Muhammed Ali. Moved half a mile north from its original location, the steel girder structure anchors a corner of a parking lot for the stadium. There’s talk of moving the ungainly tower and walkway to a place where more people can see it, such as Centennial Olympic Park.

But at least it has a home, unlike Beijing, which dismantled its cauldron last year. And my travels in Atlanta frequently pass the cauldron, often to or from the Atlanta airport, many of those times for trips abroad to the cities that have followed Atlanta as Games hosts.

The flame may have gone out in that cauldron 15 years ago today, but it’s kept me constant company since them.

Written by Ed Hula.

Leave a comment and share your memories from the 1996 Atlanta Games with us!  We’d love to hear from you!

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August 24, 2002: Carlos Nuzman beams alongside PASO President Mario Vazquez Rana shortly after Rio de Janeiro won the 2007 Pan Ams at a meeting in Mexico City. (ATR)

This week’s election of a host city for the 2015 Pan American Games brings back memories of the contest for the 2007 Pan Ams in which Rio de Janeiro beat the bid from San Antonio, Texas. Plenty of lessons that the U.S. didn’t learn from that defeat that might have helped Chicago –such as don’t pick basketball Olympian David Robinson for your team.

The vote by the Pan American Sports Organization General Assembly August 24, 2002 it turns out, clearly foreshadowed the Rio de Janeiro victory for the 2016 Olympics and as well reasons for Chicago’s demise.

We’ve written frequently about the continuity of leadership that helped propel the Rio Olympic forward and the disconnects that have plagued the U.S. For Rio, the story goes back to 2002 with the 2007 Pan Ams bid.

The bid was led by Carlos Nuzman, IOC member, president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee – and one and the same leader for the Rio Olympic bid seven years later. At his side, Carlos Roberto Osorio, Nuzman’s deputy for the 2007 Pan Am bid who reprised the role for the 2016 Olympics bid.

The dynamic duo were not alone – other staff from Rio and the Brazilian Olympic Committee also made the seven year journey from Pan Am bid to Olympics bid, a consistency no other bid in the 2016 race could match.

The Brazilians dealt with a setback in 2004 when the IOC rejected a Rio bid for 2012 in the early going. The IOC made it clear that Rio lacked the experience of a Pan American Games.

Nuzman and supporters celebrate the Pan Am victory that would become a stepping stone to the 2016 Olympics. (ATR)

That was cured in July 2007, with IOC President Jacques Rogge and dozens of other IOC members on hand to witness one of the better Pan Am Games in the 50 years of the event. The timing could not have been more perfect for the Brazilians. The deadline to apply to the IOC for the 2016 Olympics came just days after the close of the 2007 Pan Ams.

Now flip back the pages in the history book to the chapter for the U.S. Olympic Committee, circa 2002.

Wracked that year by a series of leadership crises, this was the nadir of an era in which the USOC truly earned its reputation as dysfunctional.

The USOC President who addressed the PASO Assembly in Mexico City on behalf of the San Antonio bid was Marty Mankamyer. A real estate agent who served on the USOC board and was elected president just weeks before the Pan Am vote, she had no international experience.

Mankamyer was called to fill the breach when Sandy Baldwin resigned as USOC president, brought down by falsified academic credentials on her resume. When Baldwin left the USOC, she was forced to resign a seat on the IOC to which she had been elected just months before in her capacity as USOC President. It’s a seat the U.S. has never reclaimed.

Besides a revolving door for USOC Presidents, the USOC was also dealing with CEO changes. In 2002 Lloyd Ward held the job, the second corporate hot shot in a row hired for the post without a background in the world of the Olympics – or sport, for that matter. Ward’s style and inability to connect with the national governing bodies or other stakeholders in the U.S. Olympic Movement doomed his tenure before he resigned under pressure from the U.S. Congress in early 2003.

USOC President Marty Mankamyer casts her vote in the election for the 2007 Pan Am host. She would be out of office months later. (ATR)

That was the year reforms for the USOC were put into place, the rules that govern the USOC today, meant to cure governance problems.

As the USOC now searches for its seventh CEO of the decade, one wonders whether much has changed at the USOC.

The naming of Peter Ueberroth as chair of the reformed USOC in 2004 seemed to provide a lift internationally. But a year later, the U.S. lost the New York bid for the 2012 Olympics. While the New York bid suffered a blow when government leaders killed plans for an Olympic Stadium, relations between the bid and the Ueberroth led USOC were often acrimonious.

Still, under Ueberroth the USOC seemed to settle down. A new international relations staff seemed to revitalize the outreach of the USOC.

But then – almost predictably — the revolving door at the USOC started spinning again last year, badly-timed with the last phase of the Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympics. The continuity represented by Ueberroth vanished as he left as chair. His successor, Larry Probst, from the corporate world, came without any Olympics background.

In March, with six months to go before the IOC 2016 vote, the Probst-led USOC Board of Directors dumped CEO Jim Scherr and elevated Stephanie Streeter to the post, for reasons never made clear. It was a maladroit move that only the USOC could deliver. Streeter, like Probst, an unknown to the Olympics with a corporate background, replaced Scherr, an Olympian, who had done much in his five years to convince Olympic Movement stakeholders that some stability had returned to the USOC.

While trumpeting the change as best for the USOC, for the Chicago bid it maybe was the worst that could happen. Once again the USOC had found a way to unplug itself from the Olympic Movement at exactly the time it needed to lend its credibility to a valiant bid from a U.S. city. In 2002 the disconnect may have cost San Antonio; in 2009 the victim was Chicago.

He’s a great guy, but bad luck for the U.S.? David Robinson towers over Barbados IOC member Austin Sealy at the at 2002 PASO assembly. Robinson is believed to be the only person who officially lobbied for both the San Antonio Pan Am bid and Chicago 2016. (ATR)

This week Probst and Streeter head to Guadalajara to attend their first Pan Am General Assembly. While it’s a bit late for Chicago, Probst appears to realize that the future of the next U.S. bid is at stake with what he does today – and it may be as many as 25 years before that bid happens. And maybe after observing the spoils of the Pan American Games enjoyed by Rio, USOC leaders might think more highly of a Pan Am bid, instead of dismissing the event.

As someone who is said to be knowledgeable about the qualities of fine wine, Probst must certainly understand the toils that must take place in the vineyard years before a vintage is ready for the bottle.

One other lesson for a future U.S. bid to learn from the San Antonio and Chicago campaigns: don’t invite Olympian and NBA star David Robinson. Robinson, it turns out, is the only direct link between the two bids, appearing for both in the final hours of their campaigns.

As dashing as the two-meter+ Robinson looked in a cowboy hat, the then San Antonio Spurs All Star could not help Pan Am bid seven years ago at the PASO general assembly in Mexico City.

Now retired from the NBA, the three-time Olympian was back in the U.S. bid business last month in Copenhagen as a member of the athlete delegation supporting the Chicago bid. Working the lobby of the IOC hotel, Robinson and his sizable charm was still not enough to put a win in the U.S. column.

Written by Ed Hula.

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(Copyright 1992 2008, all rights reserved. The information in this report may not be published, excerpted, or otherwise distributed in print or broadcast without the express prior consent of Around the Rings.)

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