Friday, August 08, 2008

Flashback Friday (8/8/08 Edition): The Atlanta Olympics

In honour of the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing today, I'm devoting this week's "Flashback Friday" to the greatest event to ever come to Atlanta: the 1996 Olympic Games. That summer ranks as one of the best experiences of my life, because when you've watched Olympics since childhood and you live in a city that gets awarded the right to host the biggest sporting event in the world, it's an experience you don't want to miss.

When my family first moved to Atlanta in 1988, there were T-shirts and advertisements for Atlanta to host the 1996 Olympics. At the time, I thought it was a joke. Atlanta hosting the Olympics? So, I didn't think much about it. Other bid cities were Toronto CAN, Manchester UK, Melbourne AUS, Belgrade YUG, and Athens GREECE. Because the 1996 Olympics marked the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic Games, I thought (like everyone else) that Athens was a shoo-in to win. That's why I didn't go to Underground Atlanta that day in September 1990 when the International Olympic Committee announced the host city. I was excited by the possibility of Atlanta hosting the Olympics, but still expected Athens to win and I didn't want to be depressed about it. What a shock to hear Juan Antonio Samaranch (the IOC President) say: "The 1996 Olympic Games goes to the city of Atlanta!" It was one of the first times I remember being hit with blissful feelings that lasted several days.

Because of the Olympics coming to Atlanta, I declined extending my enlistment to go on a six month deployment with my ship, the USS George Washington. The Admin Officer gave me the option of a two month early out or extending my enlistment four months. It was cutting it too close to the Olympics, so that's the only reason why I took the early out. I know my shipmates found it hard to believe that I'd choose a six month deployment over an early out, but I joined the Navy to experience a six month deployment on an aircraft carrier. I don't regret the decision, though, because it was exciting to be in Atlanta as we counted down the days when the world would arrive in town.

As I reflect on that summer, while I'm glad that Atlanta hosted the Olympics, I can't say that Atlanta was good for the Olympics. It's a case where the Olympics were great for Atlanta but not vice versa. This is due in part to a corrupt mayor (Bill Campbell) who had a scheme to make money for his crony buddies by renting public space for merchants to sell Olympic souvenirs everywhere. One of the criticisms of the Atlanta Olympics was the over-commercialization of the games. It was more in your face than the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. The emphasis on commercialism seemed to outweigh the spirit of brotherhood, even though this was the first Olympics in a couple decades that didn't have a boycott of some sort. The South African Olympic team was a welcome addition, with their colourful new flag and racially-integrated team.

Below are some memorable images of the Atlanta Olympics:

The mascot, "Whatizit" (or Izzy) was a stupid design. At several venues I attended, Izzy was actually booed by spectators. Whoever thought up that mascot ought to die in obscurity and failure. It was just one of many "blunders" that cheapened the Olympic Games.

A scene of downtown Atlanta from the Olympic Stadium, with the Olympic Rings on display.

This was Centennial Olympic Park during the Olympics. I got these images off of a Google search, so I don't know who took the photo or when it was taken. I'm assuming that this photo was taken after the Olympic Park bombing, when they finally re-opened the park because during the last week of the Olympics, the Park was packed with people. I had never seen such crowds before.

Interestingly, the park was still being worked on a week before the Olympics began. Now, it's perhaps the best legacy of the Games Atlanta has. If you ever visit Atlanta, Centennial Olympic Park should be on your checklist of places to visit. They still operate the Olympic Rings fountain in the summer time, which is fun on a hot day.

The Olympic Cauldron is perhaps the ugliest one in Olympic history. Whoever designed it ought to be shot. To me, it was just one more example of what's wrong with Atlanta. Everytime the city has an opportunity to make a name or image for itself, they blow it. The Olympic Cauldron was ugly and definitely did not look good on a postcard. It's not something that will stand the test of time. In fact, the last time I saw it two years ago, it hasn't aged well at all. Surely, someone could've come up with a better design.

Of course, Atlanta had a tough time topping the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (with an archer slinging a flaming arrow from his bow into the cauldron high above the stadium), so they went with celebrity, having Muhammad Ali lighting the flame. The Barcelona Olympic cauldron lighting would daunt any Olympic Committee, but somehow Sydney managed to surpass that in 2000 with a transforming cauldron involving fire, water, mechanics, and an Aboriginal athlete to set it afire. I don't think anyone will be able to top the brilliance of that.

Atlanta blew it. For the first time, even IOC President refused to pronounce the games as being "the best ever" as he traditionally did during the closing ceremonies. We were demoted to "most exceptional games" and in the aftermath, Atlanta couldn't face the facts that it blew it big time. Instead, the local press lambasted the IOC and ran stories about Samaranch running the Olympic organization like a petty, developing world dictator. But, the fact remains...the truth hurts. Atlanta's Olympics were crass more than class. Even the ads were so in your face about being sore winners. Athletes in these ads were shown pouting with phrases such as: "I'm not just happy to be here," "crush dreams of others", "winning is the only thing," etc.

Despite all that, I was blissed out for the three weeks of the Olympics. It was awesome to see so many foreigners in Atlanta and to attend various sporting events, including quite a few of them with Nicholas Smith who visited during part of the Olympics. When the games were over and the world went home, the entire city experienced an emotional "crash." It was hard to live in Atlanta after such a huge event like that. A part me wished that the Olympics could've continued indefinitely, but like all good things, the end comes far quicker than one would like. It only teaches you to enjoy each moment as it occurs, knowing that it's only temporary.

The Olympic flame has moved on to Sydney, Athens, and now Beijing. Here's to an interesting couple of weeks as China hopes to play the role of perfect host to "the greatest games ever." I don't see it happening. Sydney's Olympics is tough to beat. The Australians know how to throw a good party and I consider their Olympics to be the best ever.

1 comment:

Margie's Musings said...

I think Bush cheapened the image of America again with his remarks about the human rights record of China. How on earth could he even say a thing like that when the world sees us as the biggest abuser of human rights ever.