By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
1996 Olympics: Telling athletes' stories 25 years ago as world came to Gainesville, Lake Lanier
07142021 OLYMPICSreporter.jpg
Pages of The Times from the Centennial Olympics held in 1996. Rowing and paddling events were held at what is now Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Shannon Casas

This is part of a series on the 25th anniversary of the Centennial Olympics, which included rowing and paddling events on Lake Lanier. Coming Friday is a piece on how the Olympics were brought to Gainesville. Other pieces in the series include:

For 17 days in the summer of 1996, Clay Lambert covered sports on an international scale.

Lambert was a sports reporter for The Times, usually covering sports like local football, baseball or basketball.

But 25 years ago this month, Lambert was covering rowers and paddlers from across the world who had come to Gainesville for the Centennial Olympics events held on Lake Lanier. Lambert wrote about the races, of course, but in pithy columns that graced The Times’ front pages, he often was probing the more human side of those seemingly superhuman athletes — focusing more on mettle than medal, as he liked to say. 

One such athlete was Lindsay Burns, an American rower who went on to win a silver medal in the lightweight double sculls.

On July 19, 1996, Burns watched with special interest as it took Muhammad Ali more than a minute to ignite the Olympic cauldron and commence the games. Although his left hand suffered the familiar tremors caused by Parkinson’s, his right remained steady, torch in hand.

Nearly 90,000 people were present in the stadium, with another 3.5 billion watching on their televisions.

But in a column about Parkinson’s, the main character was not Ali — it was Burns. 

Lambert briefly scanned her athletic prowess, but he focused more on what he described as her true calling.

Ali’s torch lighting was “especially poignant” for Burns, she told Lambert. She had recently graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology. 

The crux of her research? Finding a cure to Parkinson’s. 

She put down the petri dish — used to examine the fetal brain tissue of pigs — and paused her doctorate studies to compete in the Olympic games. She later went on to earn her doctorate from Cambridge University.

Lambert also mentioned a Gainesville neurologist named Dr. Clinton “Chip” Branch, who treated some 200 afflicted patients in the area. 

“You may not be a rowing fan,” Lambert wrote. “But root for Burns and her partner.”

“It is not so important that they win gold Sunday,” he continued. “But Burns’ other work deserves our support.”

“Ali and Branch need her help,” he wrote. 

Another of Lambert’s columns featured Petar Sibinkic, a Yugoslavian kayaker. Sibinkic failed to secure any shiny medals, but the story Lambert told of him was anything but dull.

Yugoslavia was then in the grips of a civil war and being torn apart by ethnic conflict. America should have offered great respite. 

But Sibinkic’s paddle broke during transport, and the $350 he had stashed in his wallet — which he would have used to buy a new paddle — was stolen. 

Then a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Park, sending him and his country’s judo team scurrying back to the athlete village. 

“Sibinkic survived a madman’s bomb blast, broken equipment and a thief who threatened to send him back to Yugoslavia early,” Lambert wrote in a piece published Aug. 2, 1996. “And all that was before he even stepped into his kayak.”

“Welcome to the United States, Petar,” Lambert quipped.

Lambert also wrote about Kay Dambach, the team leader of the U.S. Olympic canoe/kayak team, who had donated her kidney to her son when he was just 2 years old. She bore “a scar nearly the size of a paddle down her left flank,” Lambert wrote in a piece published Aug. 1, 1996, and despite the transplant, her son continued to suffer heart-wrenching complications. 

“People should think about donating their kidneys,” Dambach told Lambert. “Most everybody can do it. Would you print that?”

“I certainly will,” Lambert ended.

In a recent interview, Lambert spoke fondly about covering the ’96 Olympics for The Times. 

The first thing that came to his mind was just how hot it was in Atlanta that summer. The second was the bombing in Centennial Park. But above all, it seemed, Lambert remembered the people he met and the stories they told.

He recalled a kayaker who was “built like a linebacker.”

“The story about him was that he once wrestled a bear,” Lambert recalled. “Somebody bet him a car that he couldn’t wrestle a bear.”

“I met a lot of interesting people,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t another day covering stuff in Gainesville.” 

Regional events