Bizarro Atlanta, Summer of 1996

World Athlete's Monument

Midtown Atlanta, with The World Athletes Monument in the foreground, 4 September 2009.

“The world is coming to Atlanta!”
—Ad for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

For seventeen days in the summer of 1996, Atlanta entered the Bizarro World, where the downtown connector was clear, MARTA was packed, and the world stopped by for a visit. Less than a year before, Atlanta had been thrilled when the Braves brought home their first and only World Series pennant since coming to town, so spirits were high as ’96 dawned. Atlanta had worked hard to get the Olympics, under the watchful eye of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, or ACOG as it was more commonly known. They were responsible for everything from seeing that the city was ready for the influx of international athletes and spectators, to giving the Atlanta Games the worst mascot in the entire history of sports in the form of Whatizit, or Izzy, the blue blob in sneakers which had absolutely nothing to do with the city’s past, present or future. The Paralympics, held a month or so afterward in the same venues, got it right with their mascot, Blaze, which was based on Atlanta’s symbol, the Phoenix.

Whatizit, or Izzy

Whatizit or Izzy, the much-maligned mascot of the ’96 Games. Really, ACOG?

At the time of the Olympics, I was serving as Membership Vice President for the Atlanta Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, to which I had been elected a few months earlier. Like everyone else, our activities were somewhat hampered by events around town so most of us contented ourselves with accomplishing what we could while taking in as much of the Olympics as possible. Apparently, I tried to get a job working concessions at one of the venues, as I have an ID badge from Aramark. I remember going somewhere to get the ID but don’t recall why I didn’t follow through on the job. It’s possible it was a volunteer fundraising opportunity for the Jaycees — where we worked and the organization got paid — that didn’t work out.

GML Olympic concession badge

My ID badge for Olympic concession work which was never used.

Authorities had been warning residents of potential traffic problems for months so the terrifying specter of twenty-four hour gridlock haunted the waking hours of most commuters, sending them to seek out suburban park and ride lots to hook up with public transport while the Games were in progress. This brought about a completely different reality than the one foretold, as suburbanites, frightened into not driving, crowded onto MARTA, leaving the highways far less crammed. I lived in East Point at the time and had to commute through town to North Druid Hills for work. To say I was pleasantly surprised to encounter rush hour traffic in downtown Atlanta that was moving fifty-five to sixty miles an hour is putting it mildly. Driving through town I passed the Olympic Stadium every morning and evening, making it one of the few times I’ve driven in town as an adult where I actually enjoyed the trip.

To finance the building of Centennial Park, ACOG sold bricks where one could have his or her name imprinted. I purchased one in memory of my father, who died in April, 1995. The brick is located in Section 63, making it easier for me to remember where it is, as that’s the year I was born. Right next to my father’s brick is one commemorating Jim Morrison.

Brick at Centennial Olympic Park in memory of my father.

The relationship between city government, ACOG, and the International Olympic Committee was often tense. A number of construction projects were being finished just as Olympic officials started arriving and news reports were full of stories about haughty officials or their families demanding special treatment or otherwise being rude. Other countries’ delegations complained about the rampant patriotism on display at venues, particularly the indoor gymnastics events, where deafening chants of “USA, USA!” made it difficult for athletes to concentrate. Despite all the hiccups, the mood around Atlanta was festive and lighthearted as everyone looked forward to the best Games ever.

All that changed on the evening of 27 July when a bomb went off in Centennial Park, killing or contributing to the deaths of two people and injuring a hundred and eleven. The death toll would have been much higher, had it not been for the actions of a sharp-eyed security guard named Richard Jewell. While 911 operators argued over the address of Centennial Park after receiving an anonymous bomb threat, Jewell spotted a suspicious backpack, notified his superiors and began evacuating the area. His reward for what may have been the most remarkable achievement of his career was to be crucified in the press after an overzealous FBI leaked his name as a suspect. While he won a court case against the news network and was eventually vindicated with the arrest and conviction of Eric Rudolph some years later, it’s doubtful his reputation ever fully recovered. He died on 29 August 2007 at age forty-four.

The morning after the attack, I had a ticket to see Olympic tennis at Stone Mountain. I woke up, dressed, and hopped on MARTA without turning on the television, and did not learn of the details of the bombing until I arrived at Kensington station and saw the front page of the Journal/Constitution. I had been hearing rumblings along the way of beefed up security, due to an incident, but didn’t know the full extent of it until I saw the paper. In addition to that one morning of tennis which stretched into the late afternoon due to several lengthy rain delays, and which featured Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, other events I attended included one night of track and field at Olympic Stadium, and one afternoon when I drove to Athens to see the finals of rhythmic gymnastics. I had been invited by a colleague to see the first match-up of the US versus Cuba in baseball, but we failed to hook up at the venue and since he had the tickets, I couldn’t get in.

Before the Games began, I managed to see the torch relay at three separate locations around town but only specifically recall two of them, once on Roswell Road one evening with some friends, and once on Clifton Road in the afternoon, in front of the CDC, where I was working. Someone who worked on my floor was one of the torch bearers and I was able to have a picture taken with the torch. I believe the third was on Peachtree Street close to the intersection of West Peachtree, near where the Jaycees had their offices. This one was by chance, as I’d gone to the location for another purpose and just happened to find myself in close proximity to the relay.

GML with the Olympic torch

Me, posing with the Olympic torch following the relay; July, 1996. Photographer unknown.

One of the enduring landmarks from the Games is the statue in Midtown entitled The World Athletes Monument but which I’ve always called The Statue of Five Naked Guys Holding Up the Globe that Prince Charles Gave Us During the Olympics. A few years later, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, the statue became the focal point in town for remembrances of her, which is ironic considering she and Charles had been divorced for a number of years by that point. There were numerous other arts projects, part of the Cultural Olympiad which coincided with the Games. Plays were written and performed, statues erected, giant murals were painted, many of which were painted over in the intervening years or demolished when the buildings on which they were painted were torn down to make room for something else. There are, still, a few remnants of the Games around, Centennial Park and Turner Field the most visible, but many of the venues were broken down, packed up and shipped elsewhere once the Paralympics were over.

The Atlanta Jaycees had a membership meet and greet scheduled for Lulu’s Bait Shack in Buckhead for the Tuesday after the Olympics closed and it evolved into our “Farewell to the World” party. I recall that Tuesday evening in Buckhead as being packed like a Friday or Saturday, as residents who’d had to stay home to avoid the traffic and hassles of having the Games in town turned out to let off steam once they were gone. A festive atmosphere was evident as we reveled in the fact that we’d survived it all. It must have been reminiscent of how folks reacted when Sherman packed up and headed off to Savannah in 1864, notwithstanding the fact that for us, most of the city was still intact which was one thing for which we were all grateful.

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