Philip Barker

Twenty-five years ago this week, they opened the stadium for the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta with a star-studded Athletics Grand Prix meeting.

World Athletics supremo Primo Nebiolo suggested it had cost more than $2million (£1.4 million/€1.6 million) to stage. Organisers had assembled a cast which epitomised "Summon the Heroes", the fanfare written for the 1996 Olympics by Star Wars composer John Williams.

The field included Carl Lewis, destined to win a fourth consecutive Olympic long jump title, Butch Reynolds, Noureddine Morceli, Jonathan Edwards, Sergei Bubka, Marie-José Pérec, Cathy Freeman, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Ana Fidelia Quirot.

One name eclipsed even this stellar company.

Michael Johnson recorded the fastest time of the year over 200 metres and a month later blasted a world record 19.66sec to win the US Olympic trials on the same track.

"This is an awesome track, it felt really fast, it gave a lot back, got enough bounce but not too much, hard enough, perfect track," Johnson told NBC.

At the Olympics themselves, the schedule meant he was able to try for a double. The 400m gold safely won, he came home in triumph to win the 200m in an astonishing 19.32. It inspired the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper to a one-word headline "Whoooooosh!"

The record stood until the advent of one Usain Bolt.

Michael Johnson set a 200m world record at Atlanta 1996 which stood for 12 years ©Getty Images
Michael Johnson set a 200m world record at Atlanta 1996 which stood for 12 years ©Getty Images

Atlanta’s Olympic dream had been rather longer in the making. Spearheaded by local lawyer William Porter "Billy" Payne, it became reality after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to head for the Deep South at their 1990 Session in, of all places, Tokyo.

"Atlanta is a city capable of propelling the Olympic Movement towards the 21st century with fresh momentum," Atlanta's team told the IOC.

Belgrade, Manchester, Melbourne and Toronto all dropped out before a fifth and final round of voting between Atlanta and Athens.

Meanwhile Atlanta’s Channel Two television reporter Chuck Dowdle, in a reference to the American Civil War, told viewers to the Good Morning Georgia breakfast programme "the next hour I think will be the most important history of this city since General Sherman marched through here."

Supporters gathered at the city’s Underground shopping and entertainment district and celebrated wildly when the result was announced. Atlanta had beaten Athens by 51 votes to 35.

Payne told television viewers that Atlanta’s bid had cost some $7 million (£4.9 million/€5.7 million), but insisted that Athens had spent $30 million (£21.1 million/€24.5 million). It was claimed that the Games would generate $3.48 billion (£2.44 billion/€2.84 billion) and create 84,000 jobs, but the road to 1996 proved fraught for Atlanta’s Organising Committee (ACOG.)

When mascot "Whatizit", later shortened to "Izzy", appeared at the 1992 Closing Ceremony in Barcelona, it was greeted with derision. The Los Angeles Times called it "a mutant monstrosity that was born in the toxic dump of somebody’s imagination."

A flag incorporating all Olympic nations in centre of Atlanta during the Games ©Philip Barker
A flag incorporating all Olympic nations in centre of Atlanta during the Games ©Philip Barker

ACOG had scheduled preliminary volleyball matches in Cobb County, some 47 kilometres from downtown Atlanta. Then the local council passed legislation which stated that ″lifestyles advocated by the gay community were incompatible with community standards".

The matches were moved to venues in Atlanta.

A worker died when a lighting rig fell at the main stadium construction site. A beam had also collapsed during building work at the pool. The finishing touches at some venues were added only days before the Games began.

Meanwhile the relationship between Atlanta's City Hall and ACOG had deteriorated.

IOC marketing chief Michael Payne later wrote of "a totally dysfunctional relationship between the city and the organisers".

The city had issued permits for some 6,000 street vendors. ACOG’s media specialist Dick Yarbrough described it as: "Looking like a small town carnival on steroids. Tacky is too nice a word."

Even the local newspaper fumed "Greed eclipses Olympic creed at Olympic flea market".

High temperatures and intense humidity made walking any distance uncomfortable, despite the installation of sprays dispensing cooling mist and local community groups distributing water to passers by.

Then at last, the Flame arrived. Such were the crowds that when it arrived in the locality of Buckhead only 11km from the centre of the city, it was more an hour later than scheduled. At 12:45 am, "The scene resembled a massive rolling street party," wrote Glenn Hannigan in the city’s newspaper.

Almost 24 hours later, Muhammad Ali stepped from the shadows to ignite the Cauldron after an Opening Ceremony which included 100-year-old Slovenian gymnast Leon Štukelj, the oldest in a parade of Olympic champions on stage.

Billy Payne described the 1996 Olympics as "the greatest peacetime event in modern history."

ACOG promised a "fast-paced, high-energy, all-American welcome." This controversially included 30 pick-up trucks.

Organisers claimed: "The pick-up truck is not just a means of transportation but an icon of cultural style".

The Manufacturer’s name, prominent on the sides of vehicles, was removed on IOC instructions.

A bomb at Centennial Park killed two people ©Getty Images
A bomb at Centennial Park killed two people ©Getty Images

Later, the teams entered the stadium down a long ramp. On a hot and humid night, 48-year-old Polish Chef de Mission Eugeniusz Pietrasik collapsed. He died in the ambulance taking him to the hospital. Tajikistan Olympic Committee President Bourikhon Jobirov also suffered a heart attack during the Opening Ceremony.

In a "fly on the wall" television documentary filmed during the Games, British Olympic Association general secretary Dick Palmer affirmed "the arrangements for the athletes were the worst I have ever experienced."

Transport proved a major problem, not least because many drivers were unfamiliar with the city.

The documentary showed tense exchanges at daily management meetings between IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, his director Francois Carrard and ACOG.

Atlanta’s bidding materials promised the media an "unprecedented level of convenience in the design and technology of the facilities at their disposal" but technical problems plagued computerised results. Journalists were highly critical.

Michael Payne observed later that "ACOG never understood that the media could make or break the Games."

The first gold medal was won by Poland’s Renate Mauer in 10-metre air rifle at the Wolf Creek Shooting Complex.

Centennial Olympic Stadium, as it was for the Olympics  ©Philip Barker
Centennial Olympic Stadium, as it was for the Olympics ©Philip Barker

Wrote journalist Don Plummer in Atlanta Extra, a special-edition newspaper produced for the Games: "With a near perfect final shot, a standing-room only crowd erupted in wild cheers!" 

Back in downtown, home fans, and millions of television viewers, were reduced to tears when Kerri Strug defied an ankle injury to execute her final vault and ensure team gymnastics gold for the United States.

At the pool, American Amy Van Dyken was the hometown star with four golds but Russia’s Alexander Popov completed a 50m-100m freestyle double for the second successive Games.

Meanwhile Centennial Park was attracting thousands of visitors. Newspapers called it "The epicentre of the Olympics."

Then on July 27, a bomb exploded when the park was full. Two lost their lives and hundreds were injured.

After a crisis meeting, Carrard told the world’s media: "The Games will go on, the buses are rolling, the athletes have been notified."

When the park itself reopened, a choir sang Power of the Dream, an official song of the Games, before former Atlanta mayor and US ambassador Andrew Young told an emotional gathering: "We’re here to proclaim a victory, to declare a triumph for the human spirit."

The bomber was only arrested seven years later.

Many felt that the park had been a major area of vulnerability along with the inevitably crowded trains run by the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. Thankfully there were no further such incidents.

Strict security was in force at the Athletes' Village. This required accreditation with photographic identification and "hand recognition" software.

The official Village guide book insisted that athletes could "Live, train, and relax in a naturally beautiful and technologically advanced urban environment."

A "convenient village tram system" provided transport around the 270-acre campus at Georgia Tech University. Entertainment included a "Surf Shack with terminals available for internet and world wide web access."

There was even an international film premiere. A giant outdoor screen showed Eraser starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I was a competitive athlete before becoming an actor, so I am particularly proud to have athletes as special guests for this premiere," said "Arnie".

Others traded pins. Newspapers suggested it was "the biggest non medal sport." Coca-Cola estimated 850,000 visitors at its trading centres alone.

Muhammad Ali was the final Torchbearer ©Getty Images
Muhammad Ali was the final Torchbearer ©Getty Images

The pin for Ecuador acquired extra value after the exploits of 22-year-old Jefferson Pérez on the streets of Atlanta also stopped the traffic in Quito. He won the 20km race walk to become his nation’s first Olympic champion.

"When I took the lead ,I felt very tired as if I was half asleep, it felt like a dream. Then I thought, this is my dream."

There was double gold in swimming for Penny Heyns and marathon success for Josiah Thugwane, the first Olympic champions from South Africa in the post-apartheid era.

When IOC President Samaranch closed the Games he said: "These Centennial Games, the Games of universality and unity have indeed been most exceptional. The dream has come true for Atlanta which will forever be an Olympic city."

The arena in which he spoke was soon stripped of its Olympic trappings. A few weeks after the Paralympics, it was converted into a baseball park for the Atlanta Braves and renamed Turner Field after television magnate Ted Turner. Then in 2017 it was transformed again into a college football stadium for Georgia State University.