It was 22 years ago this summer the world came to Lake Lanier and Gainesville became “the hospitality capital of the world” for two weeks, in the words of NBC announcer Charlie Jones. International fans waved flags and cheered on their countrymen, athletes earned the experience of a lifetime and everyone left with a smile on their face from the Centennial Olympic Games events on Lanier.
Now the world is back. Or at least a piece of it, 14 teams from around the world competing this week in the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
Though nothing near the scale of the Olympics, this week’s event is the latest opportunity for our community to put on its best face and create the same positive impression visitors left with in 1996.
About 1,000 athletes and as many as 5,000 spectators are expected to fill the shores of Lake Lanier along with local hotels, restaurants and shops, boosting the Hall County economy by an estimated $3-4 million.
More importantly, perhaps, it will give North Georgia more worldwide exposure, especially in paddling sports that have become synonymous with Lake Lanier.
The Olympic venue is a source of local pride in knowing it remains one of the few sites from the 1996 Games still used for its original sport, most others abandoned, torn down or converted to other purposes. None have thrived and played host to top-level competition like Lanier’s rowing and paddling course.
It’s not hard to figure why. Though it wasn’t the first choice of Olympic organizers, it became the perfect one. Competitors sing the praises of its straight, natural waters shielded by trees on either bank as the ideal venue, both practical and more aesthetically beautiful than manmade courses built elsewhere.
Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club coach Jim O’Dell, who will coach Team USA in this week’s event, calls Lake Lanier one of the top three natural courses in the world.
“The water is very deep which makes the course very fast, and there is a lot of water even in the midst of a drought,” he said. “All of the manmade courses I have been on are narrow. The 200-meter and 500-meter are done in a straight line, but the 2,000-meter is done in a large oval, so with this lake being so wide paddlers have plenty of room to turn.”
The venue includes the original timing tower and boathouses at Clarks Bridge Park, while upgrades over the years have added spectator grandstands and further amenities to increase access and make visitors more comfortable.
Part of the allure is knowing Olympic gold medals were awarded along the lakeshore visitors can walk. That mystique will always help draw fans of flatwater sports back to Lanier.
Over the years, several key national competitions and team trials have been held at the venue, including the Pan American Games in 2016. Many collegiate and national teams also use the site for training.
Meanwhile, the LCKC continues to attract top athletes. It boasted of its first Olympian, Tim Hornsby in 2012, and could have more at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. And 29 Lanier paddlers are on Team USA’s 112-person roster this week.
Now enter the dragons. For the uninitiated, dragon boats are basically large canoes seating 10 or 20 paddlers (not rowers; different sport) along with a coach, or steerer, and a drummer. The ornate dragon’s head at the bow and tail at the stern harken to the sport’s origins in China more than 2,000 years ago.
Organizers put on a big show for the opening ceremonies Wednesday night at the venue, including a parade of athletes and musical performers. Sunday’s closing ceremonies at the Smithgall Arts Center promise more of the same.
Today through Sunday, competition will begin at 8 a.m. each day and continue through the afternoon, with medal ceremonies capping each day’s events. Attendance is free, other than a $10 parking fee at the park.
We applaud the event organizers for their hard work in providing Gainesville and Hall County another chance to entertain the world. Let’s be good hosts and make sure visitors feel welcomed and appreciated as they experience our Southern hospitality. If all goes well, this week’s championships could lead to more such international events and help grow Olympic Park’s stature in rowing and paddling circles.
We’re delighted to welcome the dragon boat world to Lanier’s shores, and hope everyone enjoys their time in our little slice of heaven.
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