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1996 Olympics: The local story behind the torch
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Ricky Rich was an Olympic torch bearer when it passed through Gainesville in 1996. Olympic memorabilia such as the official torch and his torch bearer T-shirt still hangs in his home along with photographs of the day and Olympic pins which were heavily collected. - photo by Scott Rogers

This is part of a series on the 25th anniversary of the Centennial Olympics, which included rowing and paddling events on Lake Lanier. Other pieces in the series include:

When the Olympics torch came through Gainesville, it was a bit of a homecoming. 

RK Whitehead, president of Whitehead Die Casting in Gainesville, said his company helped produce parts used to make the torches in the ’96 Olympics. When all was said and done, he said 17,000 torches were built, 10,000 of which were used in the U.S., 2,500 made for Greece during the initial portion of the torch relay and 4,500 were given to dignitaries like former President Bill Clinton and Andrew Young Jr., past mayor of Atlanta and co-chairman of the ’96 Summer Olympic Games. 

The torches were composed of aluminum, wood from Georgia pecan trees and metal rings plated in gold, one of which displayed etchings of preceding Olympic host cities. 

A small gas tank sat inside the torch. Whitehead said they were designed so that once the bottom knob was turned to release the gas, people couldn’t switch it off. He said Sam Shelton, Georgia Tech mechanical engineering professor, designed the torch burner mechanism so that it would keep the flame lit in rainy conditions. 

“He would get in the shower with rain gear on and light the torch to make sure it wouldn’t go out,” he said. 

Like many bearers, Ricky Rich said he jumped on the opportunity to purchase and keep his torch. He keeps it on display with his torch relay shirt and other Olympic memorabilia in a corner of his living room. 

“It was very exciting at the time,” he said, looking at a photo of himself high-fiving Philip Wilheit. “I was really glad to be able to do something to take part.”

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A photograph shows Ricky Rich in 1996 during the passing of the Olympic flame when he was an Olympic torch bearer as it passed through Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
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