Twenty years ago, more than 10,000 of the world’s greatest athletes convened upon Georgia’s highest-quality sports venues, one of which was right here in Gainesville.
Today, Lake Lanier Olympic Park on Clarks Bridge Road, the host of the 1996 Olympic Games canoe/kayak events, is recognizable as the venue from 20 years ago only by the judges’ tower and the five interlocking rings that stand against the sparkling waters behind.
Improvements have been made over the years, including a recently completed $1.1 million renovation. The park offers one of the best courses in the world for practice, and the facilities are better than ever before.
Prior to the ’96 Olympics, the venue and its various structures did not yet exist, according to Mimi Collins, CEO of The Longstreet Clinic and chair of Gainesville/Hall ’96.
“My understanding of the history is the Atlanta Olympic organizing body was awarded the Olympic bid, and places across the state put into the organizing body to be different venues,” Collins said. “So a group of people in Gainesville wanted to submit for the canoe, kayak, rowing games, and the vision really started then to use Clarks Bridge Park and Lake Lanier as that venue.”
Many of those same people today make up the nonprofit group Gainesville/Hall ’96.
Lake Lanier’s bid was won in 1993, and the judges tower, boathouse and original service building were then constructed, according to Collins.
For the games, floating temporary grandstands were installed across the lake from the judges’ tower, as the stone stadium seating now at the park did not yet exist. Following the games, the temporary stands were removed, and the park was used for additional canoe and kayak events.
Since then, there have been two major renovations.
“Of course there’s been maintenance and smaller efforts over the years,” Collins said. “But one major renovation was back in 2001-2002, in anticipation of the 2003 Canoe-Kayak World Championships. That renovation was what built the stone stadium seating by the tower. That was not there until the 2003 World Championships.”
Collins said there was a movement in the early 2000s for the world championships to make the improvements to the park, and funds were raised in the city and the county for the stadium seats carved out of the hill today.
Over the next decade, the Olympic venue went relatively untouched before its second major renovation, which was just completed last month.
“Gainesville/Hall ’96 just completed the $1.1 million project that included renovation of the tower that was built for the ’96 games, improving ADA-accessibility and renovation of what was the service building and is now the Lake Lanier Olympic Park at the top of the plaza,” Collins said.
The renovations added a ramp providing access from the upper plaza to the platform below.
The service building, where venue manager Morgan House’s office is located, had new windows cut out, a conference area for private events, a second office for meetings and a private bathroom.
The building will better accommodate the events housed at the park, from races to festivals and weddings.
“Before, if a bride wanted to get married out here, it was very tough for me to sell it to her,” House said. “She would say, ‘Where do I get dressed?’ And I would say, ‘Well, you can use my office and the public restrooms.’ That didn’t work too well.”
Adjacent to the service building is the new two-part butterfly garden, just inside the gates of the park, with stone paths, benches and a fountain.
A walkway also now stretches from the upper park plaza to the second story of the judges’ tower, giving wheelchair-bound judges and guests easy access to the tower for the first time.
The interior of the tower is massively restored, adding a restroom for the first time ever, plus a meeting room on the ground floor and improvements throughout.
Collins said she believes parks are “an important part of our quality of life,” and the Lake Lanier Olympic Park is an important source of economic development, hosting everything from international events to local weddings that bring revenue into the whole community.
“It’s phenomenal,” she said.
House said he believes the Lake Lanier Olympic Park offers athletes one of the best venues to practice and compete in the world.
“I’ve seen almost every course in the world myself,” House said. “I personally have competed on them. And we have the best. We really do.”
Collins said she has “lots of feelings about” the changes to the venue as the state marks the 20th anniversary of the ’96 Olympic Games.
“Clarks Bridge Road and now Lake Lanier Olympic Park is one of my favorite places to be,” she said. “It’s just beautiful, and it’s so close and accessible to so many people in our region. It’s not just to see the revitalization of just the venue, the bricks and mortar that were built for the sport, but to see us as a community leveraging those investments to improve a public park and making it more accessible for all our citizens. That is so important.”