In 1896, the Games of the I Olympiad introduced in Athens, Greece, what we now recognize as the four-yearly Summer Olympics. A century later, the obvious choice for the games’ centennial was back where it all started. But former Georgia quarterback and major Atlanta Olympics lobbyist Billy Payne had other plans for the 26th Olympiad.
On August 1, 1996, athletes and spectators from all over the world found their way to the Olympic city’s original namesake for the women’s soccer final in Athens, Georgia. Rather than experience the games in the shadow of the Acropolis, more than 76,000 spectators witnessed the American women claiming gold at a more modern religious destination in Sanford Stadium.
Don’t forget Athens
It was a great surprise when Atlanta was chosen [to host]said former champion football coach and athletic director of Vince Dooley in Georgia. I was with Billy [Payne] that next morning, and I congratulated him and said, don’t forget Athens where you were born and went to school. And he said, I don’t do it.
That was in 1990. The next four years, Dooley traveled with Payne and his wife to Albertville, France, Barcelona, and Los Angeles to take notes on two Olympics and a World Cup. If the world came to Paynes alma mater and Dooleys budding sanctuary for athletics, they would be ready. Planning started in 1994.
Dick Hudson, an established event coordinator at UGA and a professor of business and English programs, was nodded by University President Charles Knapp to make the effort to bring Olympic tennis to Athens.
Dick made a proposal for us to host, but it would have been a lot of construction, said male tennis head coach Manny Diaz. I think it would have been two and three courts in the main stadium, and the plans prompted us to build a 10,000-seat center square for the [Tennis] Hall of fame along the left field fence of the baseball stadium.
Ultimately, the proposal fell through and the blueprints were on the shelf, but Hudson said he felt tennis was just the tip of the Olympic iceberg.
For then FIFA President Sepp Blatter, Sanford needed only minor adjustments to host the knockout stage of the football events.
So we were talking a little bit while the [FIFA] tech guy just walked a little bit across the field, Hudson recalled. About ten minutes later, he came back, said something in Spanish to the football people there, and they suddenly turned and shook hands with Billy Payne and each of us individually. I remember [Payne] say to Dooley: Well, what does this mean? He said we have football.
The first Sanford change? The hedges had to be removed.
Both Dooley and Hudson said the timing came out that parasitic nematodes had infested the sacred hedges as Dooley described them. Cynics were less than satisfied. Not only would the sacred football field be contaminated by European football, but the symbols of Georgia’s most precious pastime were uprooted, with some cuttings shipped to anywhere other than a Florida nursery to regrow.
While Hudson and Dooley were satisfied and the blue blood of the Bulldog nation was mortified, new head football coach Jim Donnan was simply disappointed.
The day I got the job, the day after Christmas in 95, I wanted to drive to the stadium because Id had always heard about the Sanford stadium and the hedges, Donnan said. I had no idea, living in West Virginia, that they would have some of the Olympic venues on Georgia’s campus. So I said what’s going on? They no longer have them?
Donnan said he was relieved to know it was just temporary nudity on the field. Despite playing the 1996 G-Day game at Clarke Central High School due to the Olympic preparation, the offseason went smoothly in its first year at the helm.
The northeastern part of Atlanta
By the summer of 96, Athens had already developed its international reputation. Hudson said he welcomed athletes from Australia and Sweden in 1995 to get them used to the weather and get pre-game training. Mia Hamm and the U.S. women’s soccer team were staying at Rutherford Hall.
Hudson recalled facing a Swedish table tennis competitor in a match that, unsurprisingly, didn’t get his way.
I played ping pong, Hudson recalled. He played table tennis.
After two years of collaboration with the then Mayor of Athens, Gwen OLooney, the International Olympic Committee and organizers of Atlanta, Hudson was ready to take over the logistics strings and enjoy the latest show in the city.
UGA’s public safety director Asa Boynton acted dutifully.
I was excited about the Atlanta Olympics, Boynton said. I was not too excited about the Olympics that came to Athens. I knew it was going to be work and I’d personally rather have been to the events than the events came here, and I have to take care of security.
His hesitation was understandable. While hed had gone through a huge public safety effort overseeing the university’s bicentennial in 1985, the Olympic centennial was a completely different beast.
Together with local and national law enforcement officers, he oversaw the challenge of leading hundreds of thousands of visitors in and out of the narrow streets of Athens. The newly christened Stegeman Coliseum hosted preliminary volleyball games and rhythmic gymnastics, but the main events were the men’s and women’s soccer finals in Sanford.
Boynton said daily audience sizes matched what hed experienced on football Saturdays. But the biggest obstacle was sending international and unofficial spectators unfamiliar with the city and the campus.
[Nigeria] won that first game and [their fans] were celebrating and beating drums and singing and dancing, Boynton recalled. And there was a couple that stopped to observe what was going on and they turned to me and said what part of Atlanta is this? This was the best event we have ever been.
This is the northeastern part of Atlanta, Boynton replied. We call it Athens, Georgia.
To Boyntons’ memory, the few weeks of Olympic activities went smoothly. While the bombings of the Centennial Olympic Park on July 27 alerted him and his extended staff, no major incidents interrupted events in Athens.
And when Donnan’s first game in Sanford was spinning just 28 days after the men’s soccer final, the nematode-free offspring of the original hedges were there to welcome him.
The Classic City had appeared on the world stage and, on the other hand, came out with both an economic and cultural blessing.
[The Olympics] showed us that there really is nothing we cannot do, and it exposed us to the world, Hudson said. When I tell us, I’m probably referring more to the community in general than to the university … It showed us, Hey we’ve read about those people, and now they’re reading about us. We can do what they do and we could all find it together. ‘