The Summer Olympic Games in London surely must stir some memories for local folks when Lake Lanier was chosen as a venue for rowing and flatwater kayaking and canoeing in 1996.
It was three days before Christmas in 1993 when the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games informed Jim Mathis Jr., chair of the Gainesville-Hall County ’96 Games Roundtable. “We got it!” Mathis exclaimed as he took the phone call as a meeting in his office on Oak Street was breaking up.
“It’s Lanier!” the banner headline on the front page of The Times shouted the next day.
Months earlier, Hall County had flirted with the Olympics, yearning as many communities did to cash in on the Games that would bring worldwide recognition, piles of prestige and thousands of visitors, money spilling out of their pockets. Locals had pitched the idea of equestrian events here, and hoped for at least some Olympic training activities on the lake. Those fell through, although some boxers ended up training in Gainesville’s Gold Rush Gym.
The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games first chose an unbuilt reservoir in Rockdale County for flatwater kayaking, canoeing and rowing. That site, saddled with uncertainty and financial issues, dropped out of the running in the spring of 1993, leaving Lanier the leading bidder for the venue. Olympics officials and the sports’ hierarchy had flown over the straight stretch of the main channel of the Chattahoochee River forming Lake Lanier at Clark’s Bridge and declared it a natural. Besides, the water was already there.
It was only a matter of time, which was running short for Olympics planners, that Lake Lanier would be chosen.
The announcement meant work was just beginning. Plans had to be made to handle the visitors, house many of them, complicated logistics, security and on and on. A giant grandstand to accommodate 16,000 fans had to be built across from Clark’s Bridge. It was a gargantuan, multimillion-dollar project that would actually be sitting over water.
Beautification buffs immediately began promoting a prettier face for Hall County, emphasizing that not only the visitors, but worldwide television audiences would be looking in on the area.
Hundreds of volunteers had to be marshaled to assist the athletes and their coaches and aides. They would be needed, for instance, to park cars at Gainesville College, where fans would load shuttle buses to carry them to the site. Even if you lived near the venue, you still had to go to Oakwood to catch the bus as no other vehicles would be allowed near enough to the site. Months before the start of the Olympics, a temporary welcome center on Interstate 985 already was receiving 600 visits a week.
Gainesville Police Chief Fred Hayes and Hall County Sheriff Bob Vass had monumental tasks in coordinating security to include extra officers pressed into duty. One job: Divers had to regularly check the water under the grandstands to be sure no terrorist had attached a bomb. Plans had to be made to evacuate spectators in case of a thunderstorm. Lightning already had injured a worker on the grandstands.
Police also worried about picketers and protesters who might take advantage of such a large crowd packed into a concentrated area.
Gainesville officials had to grant special permission for alcoholic beverages to be served to spectators.
Preparations for the Games on Lake Lanier went swimmingly for the most part, though not everybody was happy to be hosts to the Olympics. As prestigious such an event is, some saw a downside to it. Clark’s Bridge Road businesses could see fewer customers because the road would be shut down for days in the vicinity of the venue.
Anglers were fussing because boat ramps would be closed, no-wake zones established, and the lake actually shut down for boaters in the Clark’s Bridge area. Yellow buoys would impede boat traffic for a three-mile stretch.
But Olympics fever caught on among most residents. They enjoyed the spotlight, the international visitors and the prestige of being one of the few communities in the state to be a host to an important Summer Games event.
Sixteen years ago, perhaps only a handful hereabouts knew about rowing or flatwater paddling. Today, hundreds in the sports annually use the former Summer Games venue for training and participation in numerous events.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.