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1996 Olympics: How the games came to Gainesville, Lake Lanier
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A crowd of 9,000 gathers on the Gainesville square July 15, 1996, as Doug Ivester, then president and chief operating officer of Coca-Cola enters the square with the Olympic torch. Ivester grew up in New Holland, just outside of Gainesville. - photo by Jim Cook Jr.

This is part of a series on the 25th anniversary of the Centennial Olympics, which included rowing and paddling events on Lake Lanier. Coming Saturday is a piece on the local production of the torches used in the relay ahead of the Olympic Games. Other pieces in the series include:

Local residents Jim Mathis Jr., Mary Hart Wilheit and Steve Gilliam carried the torch during its relay through Gainesville. They said they were selected for that privilege because of their roles in Gainesville-Hall ’96, the committee that helped bring the Olympics to Gainesville. 

Mathis served as the chairman, Gilliam took the role of the vice chairman and Mary Hart Wilheit worked as executive director. 

Mathis said he started the process of getting Gainesville involved in the Olympics in 1991. He said Jack Pyburn, local rower and architect, met with him and proposed the idea of hosting rowing, canoe and kayak events on Lake Lanier.  

“He laid the plans out on my desk,” Mathis said. “I was amazed with the work he had put into it. He identified the site and had drawn the plans. We started with a dream.”

Mathis said years before the ’96 Olympics, the rowing venue site in Atlanta’s Olympic bid was on the lake at Stone Mountain. However, in order to make it suitable for rowing, canoe and kayak events, the island in the middle of the lake would have to be demolished. Mathis said Stone Mountain authorities weren’t exactly happy with this prospect. 

Seeing the chance Lake Lanier had at becoming an Olympic venue, Mathis and Gainesville-Hall ’96 devised a plan. They had to convince the Atlanta Olympic Committee, as well as national and international kayak, canoe and rowing societies, that Lake Lanier was the ideal spot for the Olympics. 

Mary Hart Wilheit said Mathis and his committee members invited members of canoe, kayak and rowing federations to fly over what is now Lake Lanier Olympic Park. 

“They could see for themselves how perfect it was,” she said. “Then they in turn went to the Olympic committee and said, ‘We would like for it to be here.’”

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Photos from The Times staff photographers from the 1996 Olympic Games events on Lake Lanier.

In December 1992, Mathis said he came out of a meeting to hear that Gainesville had been chosen as an Olympic venue. 

Gainesville-Hall ’96 and many others in the community set to work. Mathis said they ended up having 2,000 volunteers, 16,000 attendees a day in the grandstand and 1,000 professional athletes. 

“That man is and was remarkable,” Mary Hart Wilheit said, referring to Mathis. “The way he can garner people into doing wonderful things and to pick people and pull them in that have special talents. He wouldn’t give up. I think Gainesville owes it to him that it (theOlympics) came here. I think if you were to pick one person, it would be Jim Mathis.”

Mathis, Mary Hart Wilheit and Gilliam said Lake Lanier Olympic Park is the only Olympic venue that is still being used for its intended purpose of training professional athletes.

“It was hard work, and I still run into people today (who volunteered during the Olympics),” Mary Hart Wilheit said. “It was one of the most remarkable things I remember of my life.”

John Simpson, who at 18 was a torch escort during the relay in Gainesville, said he feels inspired when he thinks of the community leaders like Mathis who stuck with their vision of bringing the Olympics to Gainesville. Even 25 years later, he said they continue to serve and elevate the community.

“I tell you what’s awesome about them, they’ve passed the torch to people my age, and it’s our responsibility to pass it to the next generation and the next generation,” Simpson said. 

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