Olympic Games in 1996
From July 19 until August 4, 1996, Atlanta hosted the Centennial Summer Olympic Games, an event that was without doubt the largest undertaking in the city's history. The goal of civic leaders was to promote Atlanta's image as an international city ready to play an important role in global commerce.
Preparations for the Games
In 1987 an Atlanta attorney and former football player at the University of Georgia, Billy Payne, conceived the idea of hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta mayor Andrew Young was among the first to join Payne in the quest to develop a bid and sell the proposal, first to local business leaders, then to the U.S. Olympic Committee, and finally to the members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The local organizing committee headed by Payne and Young produced a two-volume bid document outlining the city's plans for the sporting events, financial support, and accommodations for Olympic visitors. Major selling points of the bid were the warmth of southern hospitality and the city's unique heritage as the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and a major center of the civil rights struggle.
Atlanta competed against five other cities for the right to host the 1996 Olympics: Athens, Greece; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Manchester, England; Melbourne, Australia; and Toronto, Canada. Payne, Young, and other volunteers traveled around the world promoting the city's bid to IOC delegates.
Preparations for the games were intense, since many of the sports venues had to be expanded and others needed to be designed and built. Funds came from a variety of sources, including more than $1 billion in public money as well as ticket sales and corporate sponsorships that were sold to many types of businesses, from television game show production companies to automobile, watch, and salad-dressing manufacturers.
Private investment also came in the form of hotel construction as approximately 7,500 rooms were built between 1990 and the opening of the games.
Let the Games Begin
The opening ceremony on July 19 attracted a capacity crowd of 83,000 to the Olympic Stadium for a display honoring southern culture and the one-hundredth anniversary of the modern Olympic movement.
Those who came to watch the athletes were not disappointed by the 10,318 competitors representing 197 nations in 26 sports. Other visitors came to Atlanta just to be a part of the huge event, creating a lively crowd enjoying free concerts in Centennial Olympic Park and other activities downtown. The pleasant mood of the Olympics changed suddenly in the early morning of July 27, when a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during a concert, causing two deaths and more than 100 injuries. While the athletic competition continued, security became tighter for subsequent Olympic events.
The Legacy of the 1996 Olympic Games
Following the closing ceremony on August 4, there were mixed assessments of the games. Surveys showed that most visitors were impressed with Atlanta's efforts to host the games and left with a favorable opinion of the city. The members of the IOC were pleased with the athletic competition, the all-time high attendance, and the television coverage. On the other hand, they were critical of the commercialism surrounding the Atlanta games and the problems affecting international journalists.
Downtown Atlanta received several tangible legacies from the Olympics. In addition to an improved pedestrian environment, preparations for the games included the construction of new housing and the conversion of existing buildings into lofts.
The hosting of the 1996 Olympic Games made a lasting imprint on Atlanta, bringing increased attention and investment to the area from around the globe. In 2006 the city celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the games with various ceremonies and celebrations, including the opening of the Centennial Olympic Games Museum at the Atlanta History Center in July.
Atlanta 1996: Official Publication of the U.S. Olympic Committee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Commemorative Publications, 1996).
Harvey K. Newman, Southern Hospitality: Tourism and the Growth of Atlanta (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999).
C. Richard Yarbrough, And They Call Them Games: An Inside View of the 1996 Olympics (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000).
Harvey K. Newman, Georgia State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.