Olympics on Lake Lanier: By the numbers
• When: July 20-Aug. 4, 1996. Lanier events began July 21, with rowing the first week, followed by canoe-kayak the second week through Aug. 4.
• Cost of venue: $12 million
• Who came: A total of 180,000 spectators filled the 16,000-seat grandstand over two weeks of competition.
• Volunteers: Some 1,500 helped operate the venue and serve athletes during the Games
• Athletes: A total of 1,100 rowers and paddlers were scheduled to compete, one of the largest athlete contingents in the Games.
• The course: 3,000 meters on the northern arm of the lake at the Chattahoochee River
• The prices: Tickets to the medal rounds on Lanier were $32. Concession prices ranged from $3 for a hot dog, $22 for an Olympic T-shirt and $58 for a polo shirt. Pins were $5-$50.
The shuttle: Fans parked at Gainesville College, now the University of North Georgia, in Oakwood and rode 105 school buses for the 15-mile trip to the Clarks Bridge Park site.
The medal count: Led by the U.S., 101 total and 44 gold, though none of the latter were earned at Lake Lanier.
The Times began covering the Olympics’ arrival in Hall County from the day the announcement was made. The headlines prior to the Games and during the two-week Olympic competition offer highlights of the region’s Olympic moments.
Sept. 18, 1990: Atlanta grabs Olympic gold
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch announces Atlanta as host of the centennial Olympics as crowds gathered downtown cheer wildly at the news. Meanwhile, another story foreshadowed the region’s role under the headline, “Gainesville has a stake in the gold, booster says.”
Times story by Bill Sanders: “Though 50 miles from where the 1996 Summer Olympics will be staged, the Gainesville area will be taking home a little gold of its own, says Abit Massey, one of the Olympics’ strongest supporters in the area.”
AP story: “Atlanta brought the Olympics to the American South today, winning a long race over Athens and four other rivals for the 1996 Summer Games.”
Dec. 23, 1993: IT’S LANIER: Stroke of luck brings rowing events to Hall
Three days before Christmas, the word came that Gainesville and Lake Lanier had secured the rowing and sprint canoe-kayak competition for the ‘96 Games.
Times story by Clay Lambert, Dec. 23, 1996: “The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games officially paddled out of Rockdale County and into Lake Lanier Wednesday, announcing that rowing and flatwater canoeing events will be held July 20 to Aug. 5, 1996, on a course just north and east of Clark’s Bridge Road.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, just as Trust Company Bank President Jim Mathis Jr. was breaking up a meeting in his Oak Street office, the telephone rang. It was Dave Maggard, director of sports for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.
“‘We got it,’ shouted Mathis, who also chairs the Gainesville-Hall County ‘96 Games Rountable. Mathis and a core of area rowing enthusiasts have worked tirelessly to bring the venue home.”
Feb. 2, 1995: A lot of work to do before ‘96 Games: Official ‘prospecting’ under way at Clarks Bridge
Local officials break ground on the venue at Clarks Bridge Park.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “In one sense, they were digging for gold as organizers broke ground on the rowing and canoe-kayaking site for the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, sank a silver shovel blade into the soft earth of Clark’s Bridge Park Wednesday afternoon and then mugged for a half-dozen photographers.
“‘All right, now keep digging,’ said Gainesville-Hall ‘96 Chairman Jim Mathis Jr. ‘This is going to be the foundation for one of the boathouses.’"
April 18, 1996: Bring on the world!
The U.S. Olympic trials introduce America’s top rowers to the Lake Lanier venue, and Gainesville to world-class competition in a dry run of sorts for the Games three months later.
The Times story by Melanie Thomas: “For five days, world-class rowers have been making waves, and history, at Clarks Bridge Park. Consider them among the best: Olympic hopefuls, collegiate standouts and the sport’s most faithful followers. ... And in that time, they picked 44 top athletes to represent the United States during the rowing competition at the Summer Olympics, at the very same park on Lake Lanier. ... They drew some 4,000 fans to the shores of Lake Lanier. They left some $1 million in their wake at area restaurants, hotels, shops and more.”
July 15, 1996: ALL FIRED UP
The Olympic torch arrives in Gainesville, en route to Atlanta, with dozens of local residents taking part in the relay and thousands more cheering them on. As the torch arrived at Lake Lanier, a four-person crew of former Olympians took it to the middle of the lake in a kayak, then handed it off to an eight-person rowing crew for the final journey to the far shore.
The Times story by Melanie Beard: “You’ve read about it as it’s traveled coast to coast. But today, you finally get your chance to experience it. They call it the Olympic Torch Relay, but for the 10,000 or more expected to take part in various events along the way, it might as well be a patriotic excuse to party.”
The torch bearers in Hall County included Ricardo Juarez, Philip Wilheit, Ricky Rich, Steve Gilliam, Jim Mathis Jr., Lorry and Sherrie Schrage, Evanda Moore and Doris Jones. Others taking part along the route included Doug Ivester, Mary Hart Wilheit and Kitty Fields. Others who carried the torch in the region included Tom Gump, J.C. Smith, Deborah Bailey, Tai Le, Joe Biddy, Barbara Griffeth, Mary Lynn Halter, Justin Pressley, Don Painter, Doug McDuff, Matthew Mundy and Wendy Abernathy.
July 16: Goodbye flame; hello, Games!
The torch makes its way through North Georgia, across Lake Lanier, then off to Atlanta.
Times story by Melanie Beard and David Twiddy: “You can stop that countdown to Friday night’s opening ceremonies. The Olympic spirit has been unleashed here, thanks to the frenzy left in the grail of Monday’s Torch Relay through North Georgia.”
July 20, 1996: Glorious Start!
Heavyweight and Olympic champion Muhammad Ali lights the torch in Atlanta as the Opening Ceremonies launch the Centennial Games. Meanwhile, a local ceremony was held at the then-Georgia Mountains Center for local residents and athletes staying in Gainesville.
Times story by Clay Lambert: ”Joyce Horner and her mother Virginia Hagen sat across from President Clinton and the first lady Friday night. The foursome was separated by a mere stadium width ... and what seemed to be all the people of the world. ... The opening ceremonies of the Centennial Olympiad rained pixie dust on a planet that needed some just now. And the people of North Georgia were there to witness the happy storm.”
Times story by Kerry Hendry: “Dutch rower Diederik Simon couldn’t get to Atlanta to cheer on a teammate who carried their country’s flag during the Olympic opening ceremonies. So he found the next best seats Friday night — at the Georgia Mountains Center.”
July 21, 1996: Lanier’s premiere
With the Games underway in Atlanta, Lake Lanier organizers braced for the debut of the rowing events on the first Sunday of the Olympics.
Times story: “The time has arrived. The long-awaited Lake Lanier Olympic premiere begins this morning as Northeast Georgians prepared to welcome 16,000 athletes, fans, volunteers and VIPs.”
July 22, 1996: A sizzling start
Day 1: The grandstands at Lake Lanier were full with nearly 15,000 fans on a hot, sunny day as the Olympics came to town with the first day of rowing events. The only downsides: the heat (20 people treated on the site) and transportation glitches (some athletes and fans diverted by late or lost buses).
Times story by Clay Lambert and Melanie Beard: “Oppressive heat overshadowed impressive rowing during the first competition at the Clarks’ Bridge Park Olympic venue Sunday. But practice makes perfect.”
July 23, 1996: Not so hot
Day 2: Fans enjoyed more comfortable temperatures, and first daughter Chelsea Clinton visited the U.S. athletes. But American competitors had a disappointing day on the lake, particularly the women’s eight crew, upset in its first heat. Meanwhile, more athletes decided to stay in the Gainesville area to avoid the long bus rides from Atlanta’s Olympic village.
Times story: “A light breeze gave some 13,400 fans the relief they needed Monday at Clarks Bridge Park. But the news from the other side of the Lanier venue — the athletes’ side — wasn’t nearly as good.”
July 24, 1996: Crews control
Day 3: American rowing crews stayed in medal contention with comeback performances. Rowers, meanwhile, told how being cheered by crowds of 14,000 plus was a special incentive in a sport usually attended by few.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “Down to their last chance for glory at these Olympic Games, eight Americans turned Lake Lanier into their personal showcase Tuesday. ... That means heading into today’s race, all 14 American crews are still in the medal hunt.”
July 25, 1996: Dream teams!
Day 4: The top American rowing crews advance, led by the women’s eight. And while the press in Atlanta is focused on the Games’ transportation problems and other mishaps, the positive vibe continues at Lanier.
Times story by Clay Lambert and Jennifer Baker: “Wednesday began with four American rowing crews facing do-or-die Olympic racing. By mid-afternoon, three were still alive, and headed into the semifinals today and Friday, 42 Americans remain in the medal hunt in 12 events.”
July 26, 1996: Wonder women
Day 5: On a cool day (73 degrees) for late July, U.S. rowing tandem Missy Schwen and Karen Kraft reach the finals, along with Ruth Davidon and the men’s and women’s eights.
Times story by Clay Lambert and David Twiddy: “America has at least four shots at the gold — and three more are possible today —as Olympic rowing competition enters its final weekend.”
July 27, 1996: Bomb blast at Centennial Olympic Park, 1 killed, 75 hurt
Day 6: The Times’ original headline “Gold Rush” and story previewing two days of rowing finals doesn’t make it to readers. The overnight bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta casts a pall over the Games and leads to the new front page with the breaking story the next morning. The blast killed Alice Hawthorne of Albany, and a Turkish cameraman died of a heart attack at the scene, with more than 100 injured. In 2000, Eric Robert Rudolph was indicted for the bombing and later pleaded guilty to the park attack and a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic bombing. In 2005, he was sentenced to serve four consecutive life sentences plus 120 years in prison.
Associated Press story: “A massive explosion rocked Centennial Olympic Park shortly after a bomb scare early Saturday, killing at least one person and injuring scores of revelers in the social center of the Olympic Games.”
July 28, 1996: A defiant spirit: Games continue in bombing’s wake
Day 7: Amid uncertainty whether the Games would go on after the bombing, the Olympic rowing events continue and the first medals are awarded amid tightened security at all venues.
Associated Press story: “It symbolized everything about these Summer Games — the pride of a city, the commercial overload, the spirit of nations getting together and kids romping in a fountain formed of five embracing rings. Centennial Olympic Park was the heart of Atlanta’s Olympics, and now it’s broken.”
July 29, 1996: Silver lining
Day 8: The final rowing events on Lanier results in four U.S. medals, three silvers and a bronze, with the American eights both shout out of the medal stand. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch was on hand to award the medals.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “The final day of Olympic rowing at Clark’s Bridge Park built to crescendo, but fizzled like a dud firecracker for the United States.”
July 30, 1996: Starting over
Day 9: The course is converted for the canoe-kayak events as the aftermath of the Centennial Park bombing still hangs over the Games.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “The oarsmen and women have rowed off into the sunset. Now prepare for a paddling.”
Story by David Twiddy: ”The second half of Clarks Bridge Park’s moment in the Olympic spotlight opens this morning as canoe/kayak competition begins. The venue was relatively quiet Monday, a day after more than 13,000 fans watched the end of rowing.”
July 31, 1996: Hero or suspect?
Day 10: While attention turned to the potential suspect in the Olympic Park bombing, a security guard who turned out to be not involved, canoe-kayak competition began after a morning delay due to storm warnings.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “The first day of Olympic flatwater canoeing and kayaking at Clarks Bridge Road belonged to the Europeans. In all, 37 of 42 crews that qualified in morning heats for the semifinals were from Euopean nations. The racers seemed to love the course many had not seen until recently.”
Aug. 1, 1996: Turnout light, U.S. steady
Day 11: Smaller crowds turned out for the paddling events as U.S. competitors, while not considered medal contenders, remained in the hunt.
Times story by David Twiddy: “The smallest crowd yet at Clark’s Bridge Park watched the U.S. make its most impressive showing to date in canoe/kayak competition.”
Aug. 2, 1996: Wipeout at Lanier
Day 12: It was a tough day for U.S. paddlers who failed to advance in the semifinals.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “It has been a long time since this many American boats were lost in a battle on water. All five American canoes and kayaks entered in semifinal Olympic action at Clark’s Bridge Park Thursday were eliminated from medal contention.”
Aug. 3, 1996: International affair
Day 13: The final U.S. medal contenders were eliminated in semifinal canoe-kayak races, a sport dominated in these Games by European teams.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “Today 54 boats race for gold in the first six Olympic canoe-kayak finals at Clark’s Bridge Park. The crews hail from all over the globe, with one glaring exception: the United States.”
Aug. 4, 1996: Wunderbar
Day 14: Germany’s gold medal winning four-man kayak team heads the first day of medal competition on Lanier. Meanwhile, the volunteers and staff at the venue prepared for their final day of the Games.
Times story by Clay Lambert and David Twiddy: “Today, the final day of the Centennial Olympic Games, could be the most dramatic of all at Clark’s Bridge Park. There are no Americans to support — they were all eliminated in the semifinals — but there is plenty of international intrigue.
Times story by Jennifer Baker: “In the next few days, many will return to other cities, states, countries and, for most, a full-time job. But volunteers, staff and fans at Clark’s Bridge Park will take with them common memories — Olympic images of rowing and canoe/kayak events on Lake Lanier.”
Aug. 5, 1996: A fantastic finish
The final day of Olympic competition on Lake Lanier saw the final medals awarded as North Georgia basked in the glow of its two-week moment in the world spotlight.
Times story by Clay Lambert: “The Summer Games hit us with the speed and fury of a Mack truck. For six years, we saw the Olympics coming in the distance. We were told our Games would be bigger than any that had come before. That nothing could prepare us for the international party bound for our house. Then finally, for 14 days of competition with an estimated 180,000 spectators, we were the focal point of the world. The people of the world met the fans of Gainesville. ... But the lake itself proved to be the real star. British rowing team manager David Tanner called Lake Lanier ‘The greatest rowing venue ever.’”
“We now move on to our other dreams — and Lake Lanier’s legacy.”
From Times archives, compiled by Keith Albertson