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 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 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.
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.
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