With the Olympics taking center stage around the world later this month in London with Opening Ceremonies on July 27, it is only fitting to take a look back 16 years ago to July of 1996 with Opening Ceremonies on July 19 less than one mile from campus.
The impact the Olympics in Atlanta had on Georgia State University and the Sports Arena was quite a story and left lasting footprints.
History can show that 15 Olympic medals were officially awarded in the GSU Sports Arena on Aug. 1, 1996, those being the five gold, silver and bronze medals for badminton competition.
History will document that the Marathon race, run on the last day of the Olympics on Aug. 4, ran right past both sides of the Sports Arena, heading down Piedmont Avenue on the way from Olympic Stadium, then heading back up Courtland Street on a path back into the Stadium. In the current set-up, our football staff and academic staff could have looked out the windows of the Courtland Street office and waved, or handed water, to each of the runners. Technically then, Georgia State is the only college campus in America to have the Olympics run through its "campus." The marathon ran past the Rec Center, the new freshman dorms, and turned right on Auburn Avenue.
History will note that GSU's students then became the first occupants of the Olympic Village dorms when Georgia State was given that facility upon the completion of the games. GSU later sold those dorms to help with funds to build the new Commons housing units.
GSU students currently park their cars in the Olympic Stadium parking lots where old Fulton County Stadium sat as it hosted the baseball games as today's students ride the shuttle buses to campus daily from that spot. The Olympic Flame holder sits at that corner with the Olympic Logos stretched above the roadway.
The home of GSU football, the Georgia Dome, was used for Olympic men's basketball and for gymnastics finals.
With GSU building sand volleyball courts behind the Arena now to compete as one of the first 40 NCAA teams to start in that new collegiate sport, perhaps it was fitting that the sport of beach volleyball made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996. They were held in Clayton County, in Jonesboro, south of the city.
With the help of GSU employees on campus and here in the Sports Arena then, combined with the Archives staff in the Library, here is a review of changes made to the Sports Arena building and events that took place.
When the games were awarded to Atlanta in 1990 that meant facilities had to be built and others had to be improved. Georgia State's Physical Education building (today's Sports Arena) was in the category for improvements.
Since the Physical Education building was more of a "T-shaped" building with the third floor gym areas sticking out wider than the lower two floors, the Olympic staff decided to fill in the portion on the lowest side by the old swimming pool facility. That allowed for the second floor gym to be built as a practice gym for the competitors, while that same square footage below was constructed to be the media and staff work area in one big open space. The Olympics flag still hangs in that second floor gym.
The Kinesiology and Health Department benefitted from this as all their offices and staff areas were then filled in when the Olympics left. Those familiar with the first floor will know that the outside wall ran along what is the back of Classroom 135 and the end of the Sports Communications Offices. A Lab testing area was built on the basement level and is still used by K & H for lab testing experiments. Many Olympic flags hang from the rafters of that lab area.
The plaza on the second floor outside the Sports Arena was a gathering spot and the media and staff feeding room was in the Urban Life Building overlooking the plaza and Sports Arena. That room is now the M.I.L.E. math lab on the way down the hall to the Bookstore.
Another element was the adding of a loading dock and a freight elevator on the back side of the Sports Arena. Inside the gym area, the air conditioning system was repaired and adjusted so the air currents would not affect the badminton shuttlecock's flight. The platform-style speakers hanging from the ceiling were removed and re-installed on the side walls. And, the lower level bleacher seating was removed and replaced with chair back seating.
Atlanta Olympic Committee CEO Billy Payne visited the campus in 1995 to help promote the event and sell bricks to the nearby Centennial Olympic Park. There is another connection to GSU in that fact since the original GSU building and classroom was located in the area where the Centennial Olympic Park now sits.
Olympic signage was present all over the outside and inside of the building.
GSU actually shut down classes that summer to allow for all the activities. Olympic badges were issued for access as the Olympics completely took over the building. One of the few who actually "stayed" was Sports Information Director Martin Harmon, who was press venue chief with the badminton competition and media, along with Peter O'Reilly, his assistant at GSU and assistant venue chief. The pair even slept on couches in the SID offices. The night of the Olympic Park bombing, they were made to evacuate the building in the middle of the night until Olympic officials made sure everything was safe and the bomb that exploded at 1:30 a.m. was an isolated incident.
Recreation Department staffer John Krafka was hired to do the P.A. for the event, an unenviable task with all the international names. Many other GSU staffers assisted in many ways with the Olympics. Sherman Day, former GSU Director of Athletics, was managing director of Legacy and Olympic Programs for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (1992-1996).
The Olympics officially arrived in Atlanta with the Opening Ceremonies on July 19, while badminton competition in the Sports Arena took place from July 24-August 1 before the Closing Ceremonies on August 4. Badminton was making its second appearance on the international stage, after debuting in 1992. Billed as "the fastest racquet sport in the world," the shuttlecock (birdie) in badminton has been clocked at just over 200 miles per hour. The shuttlecock is 16 goose feathers on a rounded cork, but it is struck with a racquet that weighs just ounces and allows for a rapid force of contact.
Among the celebrities who watched the competition in the Sports Arena was former President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter; then current President's Bill Clinton's first daughter, Chelsea Clinton; Princess Anne of England, the daughter of current Queen Elizabeth and sister of Prince Charles; and movie celebrity Paul Newman. The Indonesia and South Korea fans kept the Olympic gym loud and full of energy.GeorgiaStateSports.com captured some photos to show the Olympic presence on the GSU campus and in the Sports Arena building then and now. Click to take a look back at the Photo Album and enjoy.