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Editorial: Golden memories of 96 linger 20 years later
Lake Laniers Olympic moment lit a flame of joy and goodwill that still burns
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Summer of Gold: View a timeline of Times headlines from the Games and a slideshow of front pages, starting with the "It's Lanier!" announcement of 1993

Friday night, the Olympic flame will be lit in Rio de Janeiro, opening the first Summer Games in South America.

At the same time, local residents will gather at Lake Lanier Olympic Park for food, entertainment and memories of the rowing and canoe-kayak events from the 1996 Atlanta Games that churned Lanier’s waters and transformed this community 20 years ago. It is a fitting reason for a party, as only a tiny fraction of towns on this vast globe can boast of serving as an Olympic city, be they megacities like London and Tokyo or smaller burgs like Lillehammer and Sochi.

Gainesville and Hall County can savor Friday’s event recalling how the games here were largely drama-free that hot July and August, a two-week party that left good feelings with all who took part.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case everywhere. The Atlanta Games were roundly criticized by many as being too disorganized after bus drivers got lost taking athletes and visitors to some events, and too commercial when a swarm of street vendors clogged downtown streets. Those were mostly hiccups, but somewhat tainted Atlanta’s moment in the global spotlight.

And of course, the worst moment occurred a week into the event when a pipe bomb set off in Centennial Olympic Park killed one person (another died at the scene of a heart attack), injured dozens and cast a cloud over the festivities.

It was another in a long line of Olympic moments best forgotten, including the 1972 terrorist attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes following a hostage siege in the Olympic village in Munich, Germany; the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980; doping scandals that have continued this year; and numerous other political dustups and controversies along the way.

Truth is, when the world gets together, everyone doesn’t always get along. Cramming 10,000 or more athletes and hundreds of thousands of officials, fans and media together in one city is a herculean task unrivaled by any Super Bowl, political convention or other event. Nothing rises to the scale of the Olympics, and the joys and sadness they produce are in the same proportion.

But even with the downsides the Olympics can bring, the special moments on and off the athletic fields make them worth the effort and expense. When people of different cultures connect face to face, either through athletic competition or just trading pins in the park, it brings our world a little closer together.

A lot of that harmony was felt in Gainesville. Rather than endure the hourlong bus ride from the village in Atlanta for early morning events on the lake, many athletes and visitors chose to stay in town. Thousands filled area hotels while others bunked with residents who offered their homes and hospitality. Those personal connections brought the Olympics home, not as some distant, elite event but something you could touch and experience up close.

That atmosphere of goodwill led NBC announcer Charlie Jones to dub Gainesville, “the hospitality capital of the world,” an Olympic medal worn proudly ever since.

Early negotiations between local officials and Atlanta organizing committee members was just as positive. Olympics chief Billy Payne recently recalled his association with Gainesville leaders as one of his fondest memories, and how they were “100 percent committed ... to be part of the greatest movement in sports.”

Times columnist Dick Yarbrough, a member of ACOG, also said he found the folks here pleasant to deal with. That’s a credit to Jim Mathis Jr., Steve Gilliam, Mary Hart Wilheit, Jack Pyburn, Abit Massey, Connie Hagler, Bill and Kitty Fields and dozens of others in government and business circles who laid the groundwork and helped it all come together.

Landing the games was an uphill battle from the get-go. Atlanta organizers hoped to keep the events close to town, looking at Stone Mountain and Rockdale County as possible venues for the rowing and paddling events. But Stone Mountain had an island in its lake that couldn’t be moved, and Rockdale’s proposed lake was a stretch of dry dirt that the rowing and canoeing federations weren’t sold on. They joined in lobbying ACOG to bring the events to a Lake Lanier course lauded by many as the fairest, smoothest and best they’ve ever competed on.

While the beauty of Lake Lanier was the selling point, those who helped seal the deal deserve most of the credit. It was their diligence that not only brought the games here and made them a success, but has kept that flame glowing in the two decades since.

The venue recently has undergone renovations of more than a $1 million that brought several events here in the spring, including the Pan American Championships, with more improvements and events to come. That same joy and can-do spirit that landed the Olympics here continues with a new group of local leaders just as determined to make the venue shine for years to come.

Friday night, Brazilian dancers will join local organizers, Gov. Nathan Deal and others in marking the marvelous gift the Olympics brought to our lake’s shores, and the positive experience North Georgians returned in kind.

As we celebrate those glory days, we hope the good folks of Rio will be able to savor the same fond memories years after their own Olympic moment fades into history.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.

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