31 January, 2021
Olympic rings formed by performers at the opening ceremony
Olympic rings formed by performers at the opening ceremony

The Games of the XXVI Olympiad, celebrated as the Centennial Olympic Games and commonly known as Atlanta 1996, were held from July 19 to August 4, 1996, in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America. These were the fourth Summer Olympics hosted by the US and marked the centennial of the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens - the inaugural edition of the modern Olympic Games.

These Games were given a dramatic and emotional start when the Olympic cauldron was lit by sporting legend Muhammad Ali who later received a replacement gold medal for his boxing victory in Rome 1960 Summer Olympics. The Austrian sailor, Hubert Raudaschl became the first Olympian ever to compete in nine successive Olympic Games 1964 through 1996.

At Atlanta, Michael Johnson became the first athlete in Olympic history to win both 200m and 400m. Marie-Jose Perec of France won 200m and defended her 400m. Notable performances included those of Carl Lewis who won his 4th long jump Olympic gold, Donovan Bailey, who won 100m with a new world record, Andre Agassi in tennis and Lilia Podkopayeva in gymnastics.

A total of 197 nations, all National Olympic Committees were represented and the combined total of athletes were 10,320 - 3,523 women and 6,797 men. Twenty-four countries made their Olympic debut, including eleven of the ex-Soviet countries. Russia participated in the Summer Olympics separately from the other countries of the former Soviet Union for the first time since 1912.

Bidding, Olympiad and Opening Ceremony

Atlanta was chosen on at the 96th IOC Session in Tokyo on September 18, 1990, over Athens, Belgrade, Manchester, Melbourne and Toronto. The city entered the competition as a dark horse. The IOC Evaluation Commission ranked Atlanta’s infrastructure and facilities the highest and guaranteed large television revenues similar to Los Angeles 1984. The Atlanta Organizing Committee also proposed a substantial revenue-sharing with the IOC, USOC, and other NOCs.

The mascot for the Olympiad was an abstract, animated character named Izzy. In contrast to the standing tradition of mascots of national or regional significance in the city hosting the Olympiad, Izzy was an amorphous, fantasy figure. Atlanta’s Olympic slogan, “Come Celebrate Our Dream” was written by Jack Arogeti and was chosen from more than 5,000 submitted by the public. Billy Payne noted that Jack “captured the spirit and our true motivation for the Olympic games.”

The opening ceremony began with a 60-second countdown, which included footage from all of the previous Olympic Games at 22 sec. There was then a flashback to the closing ceremony of Barcelona 1992, showing the IOC President inviting the athletes to compete in Atlanta 1996. Then, spirits ascended in one of the corners of the stadium, each representing one of the colors in the Olympic rings. The spirits called the tribes of the world which, after mixed percussion, formed the Olympic rings while the youth of Atlanta formed the number 100.

Famed film score composer John Williams wrote the official overture for the 1996 Olympics, called “Summon the Heroes”; this was his second overture for an Olympic games, the first being “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” written for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Celine Dion performed David Foster’s official 1996 Olympics song, “The Power of the Dream”, accompanied by Foster on the piano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Centennial Choir. Gladys Knight sang Georgia’s official state song, “Georgia on My Mind.”

There was a showcase entitled “Welcome To The World,” featuring cheerleaders, Chevrolet pick-up trucks, marching bands, and steppers, which highlighted the American youth and a typical Saturday college football game in the South, including the wave commonly produced by spectators in sporting events around the world. There was another showcase entitled “Summertime” which focused on Atlanta and the Old South, emphasizing its beauty, spirit, music, history, culture, and rebirth after the American Civil War.

The ceremony also featured a memorable dance tribute to the athletes and to the goddesses of victory of the ancient Greek Olympics, using silhouette imagery. The accompanying music, “The Tradition of the Games,” was composed by Basil Poledouris. For the torch ceremony, more than 10,000 Olympic torches were manufactured. Each torch weighed about 1.6 kg and was made primarily of aluminum, with a Georgia pecan wood handle and gold ornamentation.

Michael Johnson Seals Unique Double

The mantle of Atlanta’s greatest sprinter arguably belonged to Michael Johnson’s feats over 200m and 400m. He had been the world’s best 400m runner, having broken the Olympic record on his way to winning gold in Barcelona 1992. His dominance of 200m was a more recent phenomenon, but no less spectacular, as he embarked on an almost unbroken run of victories in a two-year period that saw him win the world title and break a world record that had stood for 17 years.

Nobody had ever won the Olympic double of 200m and 400m, and the scheduling of the two events in Atlanta made it unlikely that it was about to happen. Undaunted, Johnson was determined to make history. The 400m saw the American start in outstanding form. He set the fastest time in both the quarter-finals and semi-finals and, after earning his place in the final, he threw his running shoes into the crowd.

For the gold medal race, he duly took to his blocks sporting some new gold shoes that left nobody in doubt as to his objective. His confidence proved fully justified. Indeed he never looked like losing and took the title by nearly a second - the widest margin of victory ever seen in an Olympic 400m final.

The 200m was expected to be much closer. Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks had beaten Johnson just two weeks before the Games and while the American was still the favourite, some wondered whether the exertions of the 400m might count against him. At the halfway mark Johnson started to move away from the field, leaving them for dust. As he crossed the line, the clock stopped at 19.32 sec, a simply stunning new world record.

Perec Produce Rare Sprint Double

Marie-Jose Perec, known as “the Gazelle”, was arguably France’s highest profile athlete at Atlanta 1996. Four years earlier, she had won 400m at Barcelona 1992 in outstanding style. Now she was determined to make history by retaining the title and by completing an almost unprecedented 200m/400m sprint double. Her record over 200m was not particularly good, but her confidence was sky high.

Meanwhile, in 400m, she now had a serious rival in Australia’s Cathy Freeman. In Atlanta, both made the final with ease and ran the first 200m in impressive style, Perec holding the lead with Freeman just behind.

As they ran the back bend, she accelerated away but Freeman responded, closing the gap and pulling alongside her as they entered the home straight. Now, it was down to pure strength and stamina. Somehow, Perec found a little extra as the line approached, and took victory, and the gold by 0.38 sec, setting a new Olympic record.

A few days later came the toughest part of her challenge - the 200m. This time Perec was not the favourite, for she was up against the formidable Jamaican Merlene Ottey. Even though she was now 36-years, the reigning world champion showed no sign of slowing down. Not that there was much time to dwell on records, as the final was held less than two hours later.

The race appeared to be going to form, with Ottey leading as the field headed into the straight, with Perec down in fifth after a poor start.

However, just as in 400m, she produced an impressive burst of strength, reeling in the field and passing Ottey with about 20m of the race left. She won comfortably becoming only the second woman in history to win the 200m/400m double. It still goes down as one of the great performances seen on an Olympic track.

Naim Raises the Bar

Weightlifters rarely enjoy global celebrity status, but that is what happened to Naim Suleymanoglu. The Turkish lifter had won gold medals at the previous two Games, both times in the featherweight category. Kilo for kilo, he had been acclaimed as the world’s strongest man, having already become the first person ever to snatch two and a half times his own body weight.

No weightlifter had ever won gold medals at three consecutive Olympics. But, if anyone was ever well placed to break that record, it was surely Naim. What ensured was a truly titanic contest. The snatch saw both men lift 145kg, but only Naim succeeded at 147.5kg, meaning that he led by 2.5kg at the halfway mark. However, the real drama was still to come.

In the clean and jerk, both men opened with lifts of 180kg. The world record stood at 183kg, but Naim decided to go straight for 185kg. The crowd fell silent – and he held the weight, broke the record and opened up a significant lead. Remarkably, though, Leonidis countered with an audacious attempt at 187.5kg and he duly stunned the crowd and indeed the watching world by lifting it above his head to set another new world record.

Naim had no choice but to attempt to match which he did, equaling the record and regaining the overall lead. The final lift would now see Leonidis try to lift 190kg to take gold. He got the bar to his chest, but couldn’t power it any further and had to settle for silver. After being pushed to the limits of his powers, Naim had made history with his third Olympic gold.

Medal Count and Sports Achievers

The host nation, the US won 44 gold, 32 silver and 25 bronze to emerge victorious with a total of 101 medals. Russia won 26 G, 21 S, 16 B and a total of 63. Germany 20 G, 18 S, 27 B and a total of 65. China came fourth with 16 G, 22 S, 12 B and a total of 50 medals, France, Italy, Australia, Cuba, Ukraine and South Korea secured top ten berths in the final medal count.

In track and field, Carl Lewis won his 4th successive long jump Olympic gold medal at the age of 35. Michael Johnson and Marie-Jose Perec won the rare 200m/400m double. Donovan Bailey of Canada won the men’s 100m, setting a new world record of 9.84 sec. He also anchored his team’s gold in the 4x100m relay.

In women’s gymnastics, Ukrainian Lilia Podkopayeva became the all-around Olympic champion. She also won a second gold in the floor exercise final and a silver on the beam - becoming only the second female gymnast to win an individual event gold after winning the all-round title in the same Olympics.

Kerri Strug of the United States women’s gymnastics team vaulted with an injured ankle and landed on one foot, winning the first women’s team gold medal for the US. Shannon Miller won the gold medal on the balance beam event, the first time an American gymnast had won an individual gold medal in a non-boycotted Olympic games. The Spanish team won the first gold medal in the new competition of women’s rhythmic group all-around.

Amy Van Dyken won four gold medals in the Olympic swimming pool, to become the first American woman to win four titles in a single Olympiad. Penny Heyns, swimmer of South Africa, won gold medals in both 100m and 200m breaststroke events. Michelle Smith of Ireland won three gold medals and a bronze in swimming. She remains her nation’s most decorated Olympian.

In tennis, Andre Agassi won the gold medal, which would eventually make him the first man and second singles player overall (after his eventual wife, Steffi Graf) to win the career Golden Slam, which consists of an Olympic gold medal and victories in the singles tournaments held at professional tennis’ four major events (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open).

There were a series of national firsts realized during the Games. Deon Hemmings became the first woman to win an Olympic gold for Jamaica. Lee Lai Shan won a gold in sailing, the only Olympic medal that Hong Kong ever won as a British colony (1842–1997). This meant that for the only time, the colonial flag of Hong Kong was raised to the accompaniment of the British national anthem “God Save the Queen,” as Hong Kong’s sovereignty was later transferred to China in 1997.

The US women’s soccer team won the gold in the first ever women’s football event. For the first time, Olympic medals were won by athletes from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burundi, Ecuador, Georgia, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mozambique, Slovakia, Tonga, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Another first in Atlanta 1996 was that this was the first Summer Olympics ever that not a single nation swept all three medals in a single event.

Raudaschal Sails Into Olympic History

There was no medal for Austrian sailor, Hubert Raudaschl at Atlanta 1996, but he did create a real piece of Olympic history when he took to the waters in the two-person keelboat. It was his ninth consecutive Olympic Games and he established the record for competing in the most Olympics in any sport. He had made his Olympic debut at Tokyo 1964 as a 22-year in an individual Dinghy Finn class event with dreams of a medal. He didn’t win then, but he did make it onto the podium in Mexico City 1968, finishing second in his individual Dinghy event.

After that, he switched from solo sailing to Two-Crew Tempest Keelboat in Munich 1972, and then opting for a Three-Crew Soling Keelboat in Montreal 1976, where he teamed up with his brother Walter. For Moscow 1980, he switched to the Two-Crew Star Class Keelboat, then at 37, he enjoyed one of his best regattas and took another Olympic silver, narrowly missing out on gold.

It is more for his incredible longevity rather than his medal haul that Raudaschl is remembered. A fifth place followed in Two-Crew Star Class Keelboat in Los Angeles 1984, and then top-20 finishes at both Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992, before his final appearance on Olympic waters.

At Atlanta 1996, at the age of 53, he was paired with Andreas Hanakamp, himself an experienced sailor, albeit 23 years his junior. After finishing 15th, Raudaschl finally retired from competitive sailing. He was the Flag bearer for Austria at 1972, 1984, 1988 and 1996 Summer Olympic Games which is also a record.

Visitors, Reception and Legacy

Preparations for the Olympics lasted more than six years and had an economic impact of at least $5.14 billion. Over two million visitors came to Atlanta, and approximately 3.5 billion people around the world watched at least part of the games on television. The 1996 Olympics were marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing on July 27, 1996 that killed two and injured 111.

Beyond international recognition, the Games resulted in many modern infrastructure improvements. The mid-rise dormitories built for the Olympic Village, later became the first residential housing for Georgia State University. The Atlanta 1996 were the most recent edition of the Summer Olympics held in the US. Los Angeles will host the 2028 Summer Olympics, 32 years after the games were held in Atlanta.

The 1996 Olympics were financially viable, had a positive economic impact on the city, and most of the facilities constructed for the Games still see use in the present day. At the closing ceremony, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said, “Well done, Atlanta” and simply called the Summer Olympic Games “most exceptional.”

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)