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How Olympics landed on Lake Lanier's shores
Billy Payne, center, president and chief executive officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, breaks ground at the rowing and canoe/kayak site at Clark’s Bridge Park on Feb. 2, 1995. From left to right are Gainesville Major George Wangemann; Steve Gilliam, vice chair of Gainesville-Hall ‘96; Steve Kelly, competition manager for canoe-kayak; Payne; Brenda Branch, Hall County commission chair; Mara Keggi, competition manager for rowing; and Jim Mathis Jr., chairman of Gainesville-Hall ‘96.

Atlanta’s Olympic organizers had a bit of a problem as they identified venues for the 1996 Olympic Games they were awarded in 1990.

While the metro Atlanta facilities and venues were well underway, planners faced a dilemma on where to hold the rowing and flatwater canoe-kayak events.

The first option was the lake at Stone Mountain, but an island obstacle in the middle of the lake’s clearest straightaway would prove logistically impossible to overcome.

Then it was decided to build a venue from a planned reservoir in Rockdale County on a site that had no water. But that idea ran afoul of some of the sports’ leaders unsure of the quality of such a course for world-class competitors.

Enter Lake Lanier. Already, Atlanta officials had designated the Clarks Bridge Park site as the backup if Rockdale’s plan went dry. After FISA, rowing’s international governing body, weighed in, the decision was made.

And on Dec. 22, 1993, Jim Mathis Jr., head of the Gainesville Hall ‘96 Roundtable group making the pitch, got the call at his office: The Olympics were coming to Gainesville. The Times’ headline the next day screamed, “IT’S LANIER!”

How it came together was a combination of good fortune and dogged determination by many who worked tirelessly to see it through.

Billy Payne, head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, recalled how Lake Lanier first became an option for Games organizers.

“We looked around for possible venues that had the right arithmetic, in terms of meters, and there were relatively few,” Payne said in a recent phone interview.

Payne said he was first approached by two Gainesville leaders he knew well: Judge Sidney O. Smith and Poultry Federation President Abit Massey.

“We heard about the possibility, so I called Billy and encouraged Gainesville as the site. We told him we had water,” Massey said. “Jim Mathis had called and asked if I could help, and I was glad to do it, of course.”

“We identified and talked to people (in Gainesville) and began to see some interest,” Payne said. “It’s easy to get community leaders to say they’re interested, but then you need governmental blessings as well, and we got that.”

The final selling point, however, came from rowing federation leaders. Jack Pyburn, an architect and avid rower, joined Gainesville’s effort by selling FISA officials on the viability of the Lanier course.

“From my research and having spent some time around serious rowers, I had learned two things: Competitive rowers do not like uncertain water conditions for regattas, and the Rockdale site, in the best of circumstances, could not be built and filled in time for the kind of advanced testing of water and wind conditions and the course FISA demanded,” Pyburn recalled.

“I was aware from my recreational rowing experience and my understanding of the FISA course design manual that the Clarks Bridge site had the geometric configuration necessary to accommodate a course. I knew the water there was wonderfully flat from my early morning rows. I was also aware of the U.S. Corp of Engineers property at Clarks Bridge Park that could accommodate at least some of the venue infrastructure such as the boathouse and business side of the venue.”

Pyburn said he and local organizers then pitched the group’s plan to USRowing officials during their championship meet in Indianapolis, traveling on a state plane offered by then-Gov. Zell Miller.

Once rowing officials were on board, the next step was to unite Gainesville, Hall County and Army Corps of Engineers leaders in the effort.

“All of the governmental entities got behind us and we were able to convince ACOG we had a venue with a lot of support and water,” said Steve Gilliam, a Gainesville attorney who joined with Mathis to lobby for the site.

“We, ACOG, made the decision on all venues, and knew that’s one we wanted,” Payne said. “The plan was blessed by rowing experts, and the corps. It was gratifying because you often run into problems with bureaucracy, but the corps was willing and strong partners.”


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