Atlanta Olympics: 7 Ways to Relive the Games

View of Atlanta from Olympic Park at Night

As the 100-year anniversary of the modern Olympics approached, a competition between an American town 70 miles west of Athens, Georgia, and the European birthplace of the Olympics ensued. Which A-Town would be selected to host the Centennial Olympics? Georgia’s capital city ultimately beat Greece’s to host the Atlanta Olympics in the summer of 1996. Here are seven fun ways to relive the Centennial games.

Several years ago, as the 2016 Summer Olympics prepared to kick-off in Rio, a segment on NPR revealed the secret to post-Olympic success: City planners and Olympic officials unanimously agreed that, when cities make a bid to host the Olympics, they must have a detailed plan for what happens to each venue after the Games. Otherwise, many of the Olympic facilities quickly fall into disrepair, like the crumbling remains of the 2004 Olympic venues I visited in Athens, Greece. 

But 25 years after the Centennial Olympics, A-Town seems to have done things right.

Yes, the event will forever be associated with the pipe bomb that exploded in Olympic Park, but the event was a grassroots movement nearly a decade in the making and a financial success. From Centennial Olympic Park to museum exhibits, here are seven ways to relive the magic of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

Fun Fact: All 197 Olympic Committees sent athletes to the Atlanta Olympics, marking the first time in Olympic history that every country was represented in the Games.

A gold medal from the Atlanta Olympics
A gold medal from the Atlantic Olympics on display at the Atlanta History Center

Have You Visited Atlanta?

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Statue of Billy Payne holding an OIympic torch in Atlanta's Olympic Park
My daughter Louise helps Billy Payne hold an Olympic torch in Atlanta's Olympic Park

Within walking distance of popular Atlanta attractions like the Georgia Aquarium, College Football Hall of Fame, World of Coca-Cola, and National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Centennial Olympic Park is a 22-acre greenspace in the heart of Downtown Atlanta. 

Sculptures and monuments throughout the park recognize key figures from Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, to Billy Payne, the Atlanta native responsible for bringing the Centennial Olympic Games to his hometown. 

There’s also a children’s garden, playground, and plenty of space to stretch your legs, soak up the sun, or people-watch. 

Sage Advice: Save on admission to popular Atlanta attractions including the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and College Football Hall of Fame with the Atlanta CityPASS.

2. Cool Off in the Fountain of Rings

Fountain of Rings in Atlanta's Olympic Park at night
The Fountain of Rings in Atlanta's Olympic Park at Night

Toward the southern edge of the park, directly across from the Embassy Suites at Centennial Olympic Park, you’ll find the Fountain of Rings. Fashioned after the five interlocking circles on the Olympic flag, the dancing water fountain is a great way to cool off on a hot Atlanta day.

Related Article: 7 Olympic Venues in the US You Can Visit Right Now

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3. Be Inspired by Olympic Spirit

Close-up of a sculpture in Atlanta's Olympic Park
A close up of one of the figures in the Quilt of Origins, a sculpture in Atlanta's Olympic Park honoring the progression of athletes from the ancient Greek Olympics to modern-day Olympians.

Just north of the Fountain of Rings, a paved path winds under a small thicket of trees past five “quilts” woven together by a cascading water feature. The Quilt of Nations honors all 197 countries that participated in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. 

The Quilt of Olympic Spirit honors the 10,000 athletes who participated in the games and includes the names of the 842 medalists. And the Quilt of Dreams honors Georgia native Billy Payne’s decade-long dream of hosting the Centennial Olympics in his hometown.

4. Honor the Victims of the Olympic Bombing

Memorial in Atlanta Olympic Park
Photo Credit: Derek and Mike, Robe Trotting.

One of the most moving quilts is the Quilt of Remembrance. Featuring a mosaic of stones from around the world, each of the more than 100 people injured in the Atlanta Olympic bombing is honored here. An eternal light shines on this quilt in memory of Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old businesswoman and mother who died in the explosion.

5. Gaze Up at the Olympic Cauldron

The Olympic cauldron in Atlanta at sunset
The Olympic cauldron in Atlanta at sunset

If you watched the 1996 Atlanta Olympics live, the image of boxing great Muhammad Ali preparing to light the Olympic flame is probably burned into your brain. Although his body was shaking from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, the Olympic gold medalist and legendary athlete held the torch high in front of an adoring crowd before sending it up an invisible fuse to light the Olympic cauldron.

Despite being surrounded by parking lots at the intersection of Capitol Ave SE and Fulton St SW, you can still see the torch tower standing tall on the eastern edge of the Georgia Tech campus. It’s also visible from the interstate on the southeast corner of the intersection of I-20 and I-85.

6. Tour the Olympic Exhibit at the Atlanta History Center

Gold sculpture of a male hurdler at the Atlanta Olympics exhibit
An Atlanta Olympics exhibit at the Atlanta History Museum

As one of a handful of American host cities, the 1996 Olympics is an important chapter in Atlanta’s history. One of the best ways to learn more about the 1996 Summer Games is to visit the “Atlanta ‘96: Shaping an Olympic and Paralympic City” exhibit at the Atlanta History Center

Covering more than 2,600 square feet, the experience highlights historic sporting moments and lets visitors examine examples of the gold, silver, and bronze medals placed around the necks of the champions. It also details the tragic pipe bombing attack, an event recently pushed back into the spotlight due to the 2019 Oscar-nominated movie, Richard Jewell.  

7. Admire Memorabilia at the World of Coca-Cola

The Coca-Cola polar bear stands by decorated Coke bottles inside the World of Coca-Cola
World of Coca-Cola has a variety of Olympic pins and torches on display

As one of the biggest corporate sponsors of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it should be expected that Atlanta-based Coca-Cola celebrates the Games at World of Coca-Cola. You’ll find a variety of Olympic pins and torches on display, and when we visited, a museum docent let my daughter hold one of the torches used to carry the Olympic flame. 

More than 10,000 Olympic torches were manufactured for the Atlanta Olympics, each made of aluminum with a Georgia pecan wood handle and gold details. And while 3.5 pounds doesn’t sound very heavy, it’s more work than you’d think holding up one of those babies as you run your leg of the relay from Athens, Greece, to Atlanta, Georgia! 

Frequently Asked Questions About the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

What year did Atlanta host the Olympics?

Atlanta hosted the Centennial Olympic Games in the summer of 1996. It was the 100-year anniversary of the modern Olympics.

Was Atlanta the first US Olympic city?

No. The first US city to host the Olympics was St. Louis in 1904.

How many times has Atlanta hosted the Olympics?

Atlanta has only hosted the Olympics once.

Who brought the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta?

Local real estate attorney, Billy Payne, is credited with bringing the Centennial Olympic Games to his hometown. He started a grassroots movement in 1987, eventually winning the support of Mayor Andrew Young. A statue of Payne holding an Olympic torch anchors the Quilt of Dreams in Centennial Olympic Park in Downtown Atlanta.

Who lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta?

Olympic gold medalist and legendary boxing champion Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics opening ceremony.

Who opened the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?

As the US president in 1996, Bill Clinton opened the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Who performed at the 1996 Olympics opening ceremony?

More than 85,600 people attended the 1996 Olympics opening ceremony, with performances by French Canadian singer Celine Dion and American singer Gladys Knight.

How many people attended the Atlanta Olympics?

Over the course of 17 days, more than two million visitors came to Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics. (Including me!) An additional 3.5 billion people watched the Olympics on television.

How much money did Atlanta spend on the Olympics?

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics cost nearly $1.7 billion (roughly $2.9 billion today). And, for the first time, the Games received no governmental funding beyond infrastructure improvements. Instead, the Atlanta Games relied on corporate sponsorships, private donations, ticket sales, and television rights.

Were the 1996 Atlanta Olympics profitable?

Yes. At the end of the 17-day event, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics generated a $10 million profit (about $17.1 million today).

How close is Olympic Park in Atlanta to the aquarium?

The northern edge of Centennial Olympic Park is just across Baker St. from the Georgia Aquarium. Allow about five minutes to walk from Centennial Olympic Park to the Georgia Aquarium.

Is there food in Olympic Park in Atlanta?

Centennial Olympic Park is a 22-acre greenspace on the northern edge of downtown Atlanta. Beyond Googie Burger, there aren’t restaurants in the park. However, you’ll find a variety of eateries nearby, including Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, Starbucks, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and Waffle House.

What happened to the Atlanta Olympic stadium?

Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium was converted into Turner Field, where the Atlanta Braves played from 1997 to 2016. It’s currently Georgia State University’s Center Parc Stadium.

What was the Atlanta Olympics mascot?

Officially named Whatizit, Izzy was the Atlanta Olympics mascot. The animated blue blob with a big mouth and oversized red shoes tied with yellow laces wasn’t very popular, resulting in the nickname “The Sperm in Sneakers” and an unflattering mention on The Simpsons.

How did hosting the 1996 Olympic Games affect Downtown Atlanta?

What started as one man’s dream grew into a grassroots movement that brought the city of Atlanta together. For nearly ten years leading up to the 1996 Olympics, the community worked together to replace a rundown part of the city with the beautiful Centennial Olympic Park you see today. And in the 25 years since Atlanta hosted the Olympics, the city has experienced an increase in both tourism and the number of conventions hosted in the city.

Did Richard Jewell plant the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics?

No! The security guard who was originally hailed as a hero mistakenly became a suspect in the tragic event. He was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, filed several lawsuits, and settled with NBC, CNN, and ABC.

Who was the Atlanta Olympic bomber?

Although suspicion was unfairly cast on Richard Jewell, the Atlanta Olympic bomber was actually Eric Rudolph. He is currently serving a life sentence without parole for his role in the Olympic Park bombing as well as related acts of violence in the South.

Was the Atlanta Olympic bomber ever caught?

Although it took nearly seven years to identify and capture him, Eric Rudolph was arrested in North Carolina in 2003.

What movie is about the Atlanta Olympic bomber?

Directed by Clint Eastwood, Richard Jewell focuses on the security guard whose actions reduced the number of deaths and injuries caused by the pipe bomb. Although Jewell was originally hailed as a hero, the FBI quickly focused on him as the primary suspect. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing, but it would take another seven years before the actual Atlanta Olympic bomber was caught.

Was anyone killed in the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing?

Yes, Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old businesswoman from Albany, was killed in the attack. And while not directly injured by the bomb, Turkish cameraman Melih Uzunyol later died of a heart attack while rushing to the scene.

Was a memorial built for the Atlanta Olympics bombing?

Among cooling water features and lush greenspace, the Quilt of Remembrance is a stone mosaic that honors the more than 100 people injured by the bombing. The memorial also includes an eternal light that shines in memory of Alice Hawthorne, who died in the attack.

Have You Visited Any of These Atlanta Olympics Sites?

What did you like most? Are there any Olympic experiences in Atlanta that I’ve missed? Any additional tips and tricks to pass along? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Atlanta Olympic Sites - Pin 4 - JPG
Atlanta Olympic Sites - Pin 3 - JPG
Atlanta Olympic Sites - Pin 2 - JPG
Sun shining behind ripe peaches on a tree

   

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