It seems fitting that 20 years later, the venues of the successful 1996 Olympics were once again the home to the world’s top athletes, serving as pre-event venues for the 2016 Rio Olympics. McAuley Aquatic Center, located on the campus of Georgia Tech, hosted the swimming, diving and synchronized swimming events two decades ago, and in summer 2016 the stunning indoor facility played host to future gold medal winners Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian and others as they hosted the pre-Olympic swim camp prior to the team’s departure for Rio. Another aquatic venue, sparkling and expansive Lake Lanier, located north of metro Atlanta in Gainesville, served as the 2016 Olympic qualifier for Rio.
Commentators and critics often dwell on past Olympic venues that aren’t re-purposed and remain as legacies of dramatic overspending. Yet, the 1996 Summer Olympics stands tall as an exemplary demonstration of utilizing Olympic facilities to support collegiate and professional sports, and creating public spaces for families and residents to enhance their quality of life.
Atlanta scored an upset when the International Olympic Committee in 1990 chose it over five other cities to host the 1996 Games. At the time, Atlanta was not considered a world-class city. But it beat out Athens, Greece, bidding to be the sentimental host of the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics.
Led by Billy Payne, president of the Olympic Organizing Committee, and Mayor Andrew Young, Atlanta got busy fast. After winning the bid, Mayor Young joined the local Olympics organizing group, taking charge of relations with labor unions, civil rights and community organizations. Payne led the fund-raising efforts. There was over $1.7 billion in private funding for the Games themselves with millions more in state and federal government assistance in the form of housing, infrastructure improvements, security and over 100,000 staff and volunteers to wrangle.
The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta successfully welcomed 10,320 athletes representing 197 nations who competed in 271 events in 26 sports. Atlanta remains the last U.S. city to host the Summer Olympics. Immediately following the Olympics, the 1996 Summer Paralympics were also held in Atlanta. It was the first time the Paralympics followed the Olympics utilizing the same facilities and Paralympic athletes were awarded full medal status. The infrastructure was prepared for the challenge of hosting and successfully handled over 3,200 athletes and almost 400,000 spectators with ease.
Centennial Olympic Park, part of Payne’s vision, was conceived as both a central gathering location for visitors and spectators during the Olympics, and as a lasting legacy for the city. During the Olympics, the park contained sponsor exhibits, hosted entertainment and medal presentations, and was a hotbed for pin trading. Today, a 360-degree turn using Centennial Olympic Park as a vantage point offers a panoramic view of the residential, hotel, office and retail development now thriving around the 21-acre public facility. According to city of Atlanta statistics, over $1.5 billion in new development has been created around the popular park.
Atlanta’s 1996 re-purposed venues continue making a significant impact on Atlanta’s sports and collegiate competitions, tourism and overall quality of life. Here is a look at five venues still being used today:
Centennial Olympic Stadium (Turner Field)
The main 85,000-seat stadium for Atlanta’s Summer Olympic Games played host to one of the most moving opening ceremonies in Olympic history with Muhammad Ali’s poignant lighting of the Olympic flame, Michael Johnson’s world record in track and field, and Carl Lewis’ career farewell. Post-Olympics and Paralympics, the stadium was home to Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and was renamed Turner Field after legendary owner Ted Turner. The Braves, who generate over $100 million dollars in economic impact annually, have called the stadium home for 19 years. In 2018, however, the facility will be re-purposed once again as Georgia State University announced plans in 2016 to purchase the site and develop their football stadium, student housing and additional mixed-used development.
This massive 59-square-mile reservoir in Gainesville was constructed in 1956 and averages over seven million visitors a year, in part from the publicity the area received during the 1996 games. The Lake Lanier Oympic Center hosted the canoe sprint and rowing competitions, which saw British, Italian and Dutch athletes taking home gold. Praised for its friendly locals during the Games, the venue generated $7 million to the local economy, and the facility still uses many of the same course configurations.
Lake Lanier has continued to host numerous world-class competitions over the past two decades. In addition to the 2016 Olympic qualifier for Rio, Georgia’s largest lake hosted the May 2016 Pan-American Championships and will host dozens of international teams at the 2018 Dragon Boat World Championship.
McAuley Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech
Still considered by many as one of the top international aquatic competition venues, the McAuley Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech was built specifically for the Olympics. The center hosted swimming, diving and synchronized swimming events, but this venue presented a challenge following the Games. Olympic swimming is an outdoor event, while collegiate swimming is an indoor winter event. By looking to the future, Georgia Tech invested an additional $45 million after the Olympics and enclosed the facility. No changes were made to the competition pool and today the Olympic athletes’ 50-meter warm-up pool is still being used by the school. The center regularly hosts championship events, including NCAA swimming championships and the USA Swimming Nationals.
Georgia International Horse Park
The International Horse Park has been groomed for greatness since its 1995 inception, first serving as the equestrian venue for the largest sporting event in the world: The 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. The park was the setting for all equestrian events, as well as the final two events of the modern pentathlon. It also was the site of the first-ever Olympic mountain bike races, and the trails are still utilized today. Today, the Horse Park still hosts a number of regional and national equestrian competitions, but has been expanded and enhanced. The park features a beautiful resort hotel, golf course, horse and mountain bike riding trails, camping, Arboretum and is a popular venue for reunions, special events and festivals.
South Commons Softball Complex
A baseball venue a century before the Olympics, Golden Park in Columbus, Georgia, 90 minutes south of Atlanta, was developed into the eight-field South Commons complex for women’s fastpitch softball. The main Olympic action took place in the historic Golden Park, where 5,000 fans watched the American women triumph over China in the gold medal game. Today the property is also home to an ice rink, skate park and a soccer/football field, and in 2013 it hosted the BEEP Baseball World Series Championships.
One of the most overlooked legacies of the 1996 Olympics was that Atlanta not only broke even on a $3-billion venture but also proved to the world that it was a world-class city. The overall economic impact was estimated to top $5 billion, and today, many of the new developments that ring Centennial Olympic Park, including the new Center for Civil and Human Rights, College Football Hall of Fame, Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola, can be historically traced back to the development of this legacy park, as well as Atlanta’s reputation as host to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta’s legacy truly leads the medal count.