Friday, July 27, 2012

Reclaiming the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games kick off tonight in London, and we'll all crowd around the television to watch the opening ceremony. In the run-up to these games, I've read a lot of really negative stuff about the 1996 games held in my hometown, Atlanta. All suggestions seem to be "For goodness' sake, avoid Atlanta's mistakes."

Over-commercialization and rigid press credentialing and access seem to be the biggest gripes. Though pre-9/11 security was tight, a nut-case was still able to plant an exploding backpack and do real damage. The Centennial Park bombing that took place on July 27, 1996, was horrendous, but - contrary to bomber Eric Rudolph's goal of shutting down the "socialist" event - it didn't seem to impact crowds at the venues for the rest of the games. And the weather was steamy hot. Atlanta in July. Who'd a thunk it?

But let me tell you the real story of the 1996 Olympics. I was there. I took my two-week vacation for that year to work as a shift supervisor for a team of security volunteers at Centennial Olympic Park. We weren't the gun-totin' professional security team; AT&T was responsible for those officers, I seem to remember. Our job was to give directions, reunite lost children with their parents (I did that three times), keep folks from bringing in beer (they had to buy it at the Budweiser pavilion inside the park) and bicycles/skates/skateboards, plus crowd control and generally keeping an eye on anyone looking sick or getting too rambunctious. The professionals took over - medical or law enforcement - from there.

My stint was one week before the games started and the first week of the games. I worked with a smart, fun team of folks from FirstAtlanta Bank. The hours were long. I normally reported in at 3pm and worked until the park closed, sometimes midnight, sometimes 1-2am. It was hot. But we had been well-trained, learning everything from how to keep cool (heat-wise and head-wise), how to spot suspicious behavior (which has stood me in good stead since then), basic first aid, and every bit of Olympic/Atlanta trivia you can think of. And, yeah, we got to wear those great safari hats that people offered large sums of money for ("No, I'm not going to sell you my hat." I still have mine, by the way). Bottom line, my job was hospitality.

The park was wide open, which was subsequently a criticism of Atlanta's games - too much activity concentrated in one area of the city. Well, boo-hoo. It was the place to see and be seen. It's where the athletes hung out in their off-hours or to celebrate victories. Visitors from all over the world were treated to great concerts and had a ball playing in the dancing fountains. It was definitely a party atmosphere. We laughed a lot, learned a lot, and - trained as we were - never lost our cool.

It wasn't all work, though. Kate and I attended a couple of equestrian events at the Conyers International Horse Park and a baseball event at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Thanks to a good friend with an extra ticket, Kate was lucky enough to attend the Opening Ceremony (yes, we still have the green and gold quilted pouch of goodies). Saw several concerts at the Park (picture above at Joan Osborne concert, I think). I also had volunteer shifts in front of All Saints', fortuitously located between the North Avenue MARTA station and Olympic Village where the athletes were staying. We gave directions, handed out water and snacks, and invited folks to come in from the heat, say a prayer, meditate, whatever. Many took us up on that.

Yeah, it was a big commercial event, but that was seen as a huge plus at the time. We kept hearing horror stories about Montreal still deep in debt from its 1976 games, and Atlanta was just not going there. I think the city ended up in the black by about $10 million, so thank you Coca-Cola, AT&T, IBM, and Budweiser. The thing is, I notice London's games are even more commercialized than Atlanta's. Here's hoping my English friends come out ahead, too. You do not want to be paying for this twenty years down the road.

The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta were wonderful. We had the best, friendliest, most helpful  volunteers on the planet (and I believe that record still stands). The athletic events set an unprecedented number of world records. Most of the visitors were just happy to be there and really got into the Olympic spirit. So hate on our games all you want, just understand that your negative view is colored by a prickly press corps and sour IOC officials. OK, our mascot was ridiculous, but thank God, London's is even worse. Leave Izzy alone now.

Ali lighting the flame. Kerri Strug making that vault. The Brazilian soccer team bringing me one of its t-shirts as a thank-you for directing them to the Budweiser tent. That frozen lemonade concoction. Collecting and trading pins. Those gorgeous blue-green butterflies at the Opening Ceremony, plus Gladys Knight singing Georgia on My Mind.

Awesome, Atlanta! Thank you for the opportunity to serve my city, my country, and the world.


Liz said...

That must have been a brilliant experience, Mary. I'm sure you were a lovely and welcoming welcomer too!

MaryB said...

Thanks, Liz. Yes, we had a ball. Great memories of a wonderful time.