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Our Views: Flame never goes out

Opening of Beijing Games evokes memories of North Georgia’s Olympic moment in 1996

POSTED: October 5, 2008 5:01 a.m.

As we watched the Olympic flame lit in Beijing on Friday to begin the 2008 Olympic Games, it's only natural for residents of our area to feel both nostalgic and proud in remembering a similar summer night 12 years ago.

That was when the Centennial Olympics came to Atlanta and North Georgia, marking our region's debut on the world stage. For better or worse, the experience of playing host to the Olympics had a major impact on our state that is felt to this day.

As the games begin in China, it reminds us what a select club Atlanta, North Georgia and Gainesville belong to. Beijing is only the 23rd different city to serve as host since the modern Olympiad began in Athens in 1896. Another 17 cities have served as sites for the Winter Games, which began in 1924.

That's a short list. And when the games came to Atlanta, Gainesville had its share of the spotlight as venue for the rowing and canoe-kayak events from July 21 to Aug. 4, 1996.

It was two days before Christmas in 1993 when Jim Mathis Jr., head of the local Olympic committee, got the call from an Atlanta official: The games were coming to Lake Lanier.

Construction of the venue began in January 1995, and six months later, the finish tower was ready, the boathouses were nearly finished and the grandstands and boat docks were in place. By the following June, the massive 16,000-seat floating grandstands on the other side of the lake were ready.

And so was our city. Volunteers poured out across the area to lend a hand and welcome the world's visitors, a communitywide effort seldom seen before or since.

The Olympic torch came to town the week before the games began, with a dozen different runners transporting it to Clarks Bridge. There, the flame was paddled halfway across the lake, then transferred at midlake to another boat and rowed to the other side. Another dozen runners carried the flame through White, Habersham, Stephens and Rabun counties.

A few days later, viewers gasped, then cheered as Muhammad Ali, shaken by Parkinson's disease, lit the torch on Capitol Avenue. Atlanta's Games had begun in dramatic fashion.

Some 14,000 fans made their way to Lake Lanier for the first day of rowing competition on July 21, a sunny 86-degree day. The next day's schedule was highlighted by a visit from presidential daughter Chelsea Clinton.

In all, some 1,100 athletes and 180,000 spectators made their way to Clarks Bridge Park over the two weeks, along with a worldwide TV audience that heard late NBC sportscaster Charlie Jones call our fair city "the hospitality capital of the world."

As fans swarmed to the lake to watch the rowers' graceful display of strength and agility, a festival atmosphere made it one of the most celebrated venues of the Olympics. Even the weather cooperated; despite fears that the stifling midsummer heat would cause hundreds to swoon, fans basked in mild sunshine with no serious problems.

Remember the names? There was Yasmin Farooq, the diminutive coxswain of the U.S. women's rowing team, who in later years became a TV analyst for the sport. There was the American duo of Missy Schwen and Karen Kraft, who won a silver medal in the pairs. And Great Britain's Steven Redgrave -- now Sir Steven Redgrave -- the grand old man of Olympic rowing, who earned the fourth of his five gold medals in consecutive Olympics on Lake Lanier at age 34. And do-ragged Czech Martin Doktor, the rock star of canoeing.

Of course, not all the news was good. Transportation problems around and out of Atlanta plagued the games, and the endless cordon of vendors in downtown Atlanta drew much scorn. Then came the terrifying night when a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one woman and putting the fate of the games in doubt.

But the next day, the image of American rowers Jonathan Holland and Michael Peterson bowing their heads in reverence and determination showed the world that the games would go on.

For two weeks, the world came and watched. Yet when it was done, the torch never quite went out on the games here. While other venues in the Atlanta area fell into disrepair and were abandoned or razed, or turned into something else (Olympic Stadium became Turner Field), our rowing and paddling venue thrived. The site was restored to its original glory in time for the 2003 international canoe and kayak championships, when the world returned to Lake Lanier.

This year, several paddlers from the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club took part in Olympic qualifying, with one, Morgan House, falling just short of making the U.S. team. But don't count them out for London in 2012. A large group of LCKC athletes and coaches competed in the U.S. Flatwater national club meet last week in Oklahoma City. There also is hope that the club can serve as host to that event in future years.

Their efforts and the memories of 12 years ago keep the Olympic flame burning in Gainesville, and likely will for years to come.

We offer our best wishes to the people of Beijing. We can understand the pride and anticipation they feel today, and we hope their Olympic experience can be as rewarding as our own.



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