20 Years Later: Atlanta’s Centennial Olympics

With the Rio 2016 Olympics upon us, it’s hard to believe we have to look back two decades to remember the Centennial Olympic Games held in Atlanta, GA. Although no Olympics is without it’s challenges, Atlanta’s games were one for the history books in a multitude of ways. Here’s a look back at the history and highlights of the 26th Olympiad held in Atlanta, GA.

Billy Payne, an Athens, GA native and now chairman of Augusta National Golf Club (home to the famous Masters Tournament), was the driving force behind bringing the Olympics to Atlanta. Having hatched the idea in 1987, Payne rallied enough support from influential Georgians and private enterprise to have the International Olympic Committee award Atlanta the games in 1990.

atlanta olypmics billy payne bill clinton(Payne is on the left, with President Clinton) Photo Courtesy Of dailymail.co.uk

Atlanta was the first city to finance their Olympic infrastructure without governmental funding. The Olympic Stadium, now known as Turner Field (home of the Atlanta Braves), was built with $200 million in private money. Sometimes described as a historically “plain Jane” Olympic stadium, the architects put a premium on functionality and preserving the ability to use the space for another function once the Olympics left town.

Atlanta olympics turner field stadium constructionPhoto Courtesy Of wbur.org

Related: The Atlanta Braves Experience – VIP Versus Budget-Conscious

Putting together the entire 1996 Olympics in Atlanta cost approximately $1.7 billion… a hefty sum for a privately funded event. Luckily, hometown favorite Coca-Cola stepped up with an advertising/sponsorship budget that ran well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. At times criticized as an “over-commercialized” Olympic games, some have even called the 1996 event the Coca-Cola Olympics.

atlanta olympics coca cola posterPhoto Courtesy Of coca-cola.co.uk

Another first for the Olympics in Atlanta was the fact that every single nation invited to compete sent athletes, including North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, all of the former Soviet republics, and Hong Kong. This would be Hong Kong’s final Olympic Games before their Olympic Committee was made to change their name to Hong Kong, China; as Hong Kong was absorbed back into China in 1997.

Flags of the participating nations ring Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony for the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta Friday July 19,1996. (AP Photo/Peter J. Thompson, Athletics Magazine)Photo Courtesy Of wbur.org

The late, great Muhammad Ali famously lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta. The former gold medal Olympian and World Heavyweight Champion had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 12 years earlier and inspired many by standing tall during the iconic ceremony.

muhammad ali atlanta olympics torchPhoto Courtesy Of atlantamagazine.com

Michael Johnson etched his name into history books when he swept the 200 and 400 meter events, taking gold medals in both while making a bold fashion statement with his gold cleats.

Michael Johnson Atlanta olympicsPhoto Courtesy Of solecollector.com

Carl Lewis also made track & field history winning his ninth gold medal. Lewis won it in the long jump with a distance of 27 ft 10.5 in (8.50m). He would retire from competitive sport a year later and go on to be named “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.

** FILE ** In this July 29, 1996 file photo, Carl Lewis of the United States takes his third jump during the men's long jump final at the 1996 Summer Olympic games in Atlanta. Lewis won the gold medal. In winning the 200-meter freestyle, Michael Phelps etched his name alongside the winningest Olympians with the ninth gold of an already brilliant career that shows no signs of slowing down. He'll only be making a brief stopover, saying hi to a group that includes Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis, then moving on. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)Photo Courtesy Of  japantimes.co.jp

The Olympic Village in Atlanta was constructed on North Ave and what is now Centennial Olympic Park Dr. Located just across the street from Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech, the Olympic Village was another infrastructure spend that was easily converted for another use after the Games. Now known as the North Avenue Apartments, the Olympic Village housed students from Georgia State for a number of years after the Olympics and is now occupied by Georgia Tech.

atlanta olympics village downtown viewPhoto Courtesy Of georgiaencyclopedia.org

On the night of July 27, tragedy struck the Atlanta Olympics when a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park. The terrorist act was perpetrated by Eric Rudolph, who would be captured in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison for this and multiple other bombings he carried out. The blast directly killed 1 person and injured 111 others; a second victim died of a heart attacked induced by the event. Richard Jewell, a security guard, had discovered the suspicious package and is credited with saving many lives by starting an evacuation of the area just before the explosion.

Investigators inspect the scene of the explosion at the Olympic Centennial Park in Atlanta Saturday, July 27, 1996. The explosion killed at least two people and injured more than 100 others. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)Photo Courtesy Of britannica.com

Atlanta’s Olympic mascot, named Izzy, was not well received by the media and fans. Perhaps one of the most non-traditional components of the Atlanta Olympics when compared to other Olympic games, Izzy proved hard to sell and sadly now hard to forget.

atlanta olympics izzyPhoto Courtesy Of AccessAtlanta

Another marquee remnant of the Atlanta Olympics is Centennial Olympic Park – now a 21 acre park in the heart of downtown Atlanta. The park was paid for in part by the donations of thousands of people who bought bricks engraved with a short message of their choice at a cost of $35 each. The now expanded park replaced what had been a very rundown part of the city and remains a popular venue for tourists and events to this day.

atlanta olympics centennial olympic parkPhoto Courtesy Of dtjdesign.com

Atlanta is the last US city to have hosted the Summer Olympics and will stand as such until at least 2024. Rome, Paris, Budapest, and Los Angeles are the candidates in the running for 2024 – the winner will be announced in September 2017.

 

 

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