By Baker Owens –
With the Rio Olympics less than three weeks away, many in Atlanta and Georgia are pondering the legacy of our own Olympics. On Saturday, Centennial Olympic Park hosted a “Relive the Dream” event for families and friends to celebrate the legacy and remember their own experiences. After a bit of a delay thanks to some summer thunderstorms, the event played host to Georgia Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former Atlanta Mayor and Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) Chairman and CEO Billy Payne and long-time Atlanta-based band Banks and Shane. Returning Olympians included five members of the “Magnificent Seven” U.S. women’s gymnastics team, they won the Gold Medal in ’96, track and field star Carl Lewis and former Hawks coach and 1992 Dream Team Coach Lenny Wilkens.
The athlete meet and greet ended up getting cancelled due to the weather but the rest of the program resumed as normal.
The actual legacy of the games is a source of much argument among pundits and politicians. Politicians, ever the economic-developers, praise the games for putting Atlanta on the map of the world stage. Long thought of as that place with the big airport, Atlanta’s growth since then is inarguable. In 1990, the metro Atlanta had a population of roughly 2.9 million, by 2000 that number had grown to 4.1 million, and by 2010, 5.7 million.
Sadly, every remembrance of the Olympic games also inevitably includes the impossible-to-ignore bombing of Centennial Olympic Park. The bombing has undoubtedly stained the promotion of the games by the city but as Rembert Browne, Atlanta native and Grantland writer put it, “If you get the Olympics, that’s the one time you’re going to see it in your lifetime. And most cities will never get it.” Despite the bombing, the Olympics went on and went on successfully. Maybe the old writers at Le Monde thought there were too many t-shirt sellers but it created a lot of great memories for hundreds of thousands of Georgians.
Browne also relates a joke about how the architects of the Atlanta Olympic bid made a deal with the Devil to trade getting the Olympics for 99 years of bad luck on our sports teams – the last championship the city saw was the Braves in 1995, nine months before the Olympics.
The physical imprint of the games on the town is slowly fading away. By 2018, the Georgia Dome will be torn down and Turner Field, the former Olympic Stadium, may be gone or unrecognizable – Georgia State may have the best football or baseball teams they’ve ever had but they are unlikely to fill a nearly 50,000 seat stadium. The Olympic field hockey stadium, Herndon Stadium at Morris Brown College, is abandoned and decaying at Morris Brown College, which has struggled financially since losing accreditation in 2003 and sold its land to the city of Atlanta in 2014. Centennial Olympic Park though has evolved into a great venue for various events – concerts, festivals, or Olympic remembrances – held in Atlanta and looks pretty safe. And, as several thousand people present on Saturday night can attest, we’ll always have the memories.