The Cotton States Exposition brilliantly showcased our city in the wake of the Civil War, drawing 800,000 visitors over 100 days to Piedmont Park in 1895 for a world’s fair-type event. The “Gone With the Wind” world premiere Dec. 15, 1938 at the Loew’s Grand Theater brought Hollywood royalty with all of the trappings. Martin Luther King Jr. choose to make Atlanta the headquarters of the Civil Rights Movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, an event begrudgingly celebrated by the city’s business elite with a nudge from Robert Woodruff, the former president of Coca-Cola Co. who at the time served on its board.
All of these events took place well before my time. I did, however, get to experience one of Atlanta’s moments 16 years ago when the city hosted the Centennial Olympic Games.
A group led by the inexhaustible Billy Payne won the bid to host in 1990 over much more recognizable cities including Athens, Greece, home of the first Olympics in 1896, and Tokyo. On July 17, 1996, eight years of planning and anticipation culminated in two epic weeks which I all but missed, despite the fact that I have lived here my entire life.
On summer break from college, I saw a news report touting the number of jobs available for the games. I walked into the offices of Ranstad, the staffing company for the Olympics, where the Whole Foods Market is on West Paces Ferry Road today. I had a weak resume and little else. I walked out with a job in that very office helping to process the paperwork of the thousands of people who would be employed for the Olympics.
Given the amount of work we were doing, attending the actual sporting events was pretty much out of the question. We worked from sunup to well past sundown six days a week. There were large televisions in the center of the office so every once in a while, when a big Olympic moment was about to happen, we would all go stand around, watch it and get back to work.
I did get to watch the torch as it was carried down West Paces Ferry en route to the stadium. The streets were lined with spectators as police closed everything down to make way for the symbolic flame, which represented the near end of the journey and the beginning of the games.
In all I spent a single day in the chaos that was downtown showing around a few friends who had come to town for the games. It was a different city all together. Usually one of Atlanta’s stronger boosters, I found myself lost in a dizzying array of popup vendors and new spaces like Centennial Olympic Park. To this day I cannot tell you what Izzy, the ’96 Olympics’ mascot, was supposed to be. Did anyone ever figure that out?
The Olympic Games were not without incident, most notably the July 27 terrorist bombing which claimed the lives of two people. That disgusting and cowardly act by Eric Rudolph marred what otherwise was a great moment for Atlanta.
But we rose above even that, as we always do. The key to the games was hospitality, plain and simple, which is how Atlanta has defined herself going all the way back to 1895. We do that better than just about anyone.
Thornton Kennedy is a fifth-generation Buckhead resident and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.