1996 Olympics: Centenary celebrations
1996 Summer games
Host: Atlanta, United States of America
Medal table winner: United States of America
Held between July 19th and August 4th, the 1996 games saw the centenary celebrations of the modern Olympic games. As the last tournament in the 20th century, Atlanta was chosen as the city to hark back to that inaugural competition in 1896. That being said, it was perceived as disappointing that Athens lost out in the bidding process to host as it had done at those very first games.
Unsurprisingly, it proved the host nation that topped the medal table with an emphatic 44 gold medals and 101 ribbons overall. Russia, who were competing under that name for the first time since 1912, came a respectable second with Germany third. However, it proved the ultimate low for Team GB who came home with just one gold and a placing inferior to nations such as North Korea, Kazakhstan and Bulgaria.
On the whole, Atlanta put on a superb display in becoming the third different US city to host the summer games. John Williams composed the competition’s overture: ‘Summon the Heroes’ and Muhammad Ali, movingly, lit the Olympic flame albeit suffering from Parkinson’s disease. While the location may have proven odd, Atlanta did a sterling job at marking 100 years of sporting brilliance.
One of the motives behind pushing Atlanta as host was to prove to the world that the southern states were thriving and poverty was retreating. While, on the whole, this was achieved; the games’ integrity was wounded by a tragic incident. July 27th was the discovery of a pipe bomb at the Centennial Olympic Park by security guard Richard Jewell.
The discovery of the item went a long way in saving lives yet the explosion still resulted in two fatalities and 111 people being left injured. Eric Robert Rudolph was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison for the incident in 2003. In a similar way to the Munich massacre of 1972, terrorism once again left an unwanted scar on an Olympic tournament.
Johnson’s historic double
Aside from the tragedy, sport, as ever, was sure to prevail. The achievements of Michael Johnson in particular captured the hearts of America and gave viewers goose bumps across the world. Johnson, famed for his unorthodox running style, was hoping to become the first man to win the 200m and 400m at an Olympic games. The then 29-year-old was particularly determined given food poisoning had ruined his gold medals attempts in Barcelona four years previously.
Wearing his now famous golden spikes, Johnson cruised to the first half of the double with victory in the 400m. Being the Dallas-born sprinter’s preferred event, he bagged the Olympic record with a time of 43.49 seconds. Great Britain’s Roger Black put in a superb performance to secure silver, but still remained a distant 0.92 seconds off the lead.
Having broken the 17-year world record of Pedro Mennea in the Olympic trials, Johnson was equally confident going into the 200m. In one of the greatest performances ever seen at a summer games, Johnson stripped a further 0.3 seconds off the world record as he romped to victory. With an outrageous time of 19.32, it proved the biggest ever-record improvement in the event’s history. It simply sent the packed stadium and millions of viewers into mass delirium.
I defy anyone to watch the footage and not get a tingle down their spine.
Given the monumental prestige of an Olympic gold medal, athletes will often go to unparalleled lengths to feel the 24 carats round their neck. This is often augmented in team events when one’s performances can influence the destinies of others also. Never has this been truer than in the case of Kerri Strug and the United States’ charge to Team Gymnastics gold.
The USA commanded a comfortable 0.897 lead over Russia going into the final rotation. However, a string of poor dismounts and two falls from Dominique Moceanu saw the medal order depend on Strug and the vault. The host nation’s situation appeared even direr after her first attempt though. Due to an under rotation, Strug badly damaged her ankle and was awarded 9.162 points.
The Arizona-born gymnast had to perform her second attempt and land it in order to mathematically secure the gold. In one of the bravest and most heroic Olympic moments, Strug shuffled and limped up to the runway. Executing a superb vault and saluting the judges afterwards, she bagged US victory in the most dramatic fashion.
It was later revealed she had vaulted with a third-degree lateral sprain. Respect.
Emotional send-off for Lewis
12 years since he rose to unprecedented fame with four gold medals in Los Angeles, Carl Lewis was poised to bow out of the Olympics in style. While his sprinting days were truly past him, the then 35-year-old remained one of the world’s finest long jumpers. His chances of victory were also augmented by injuries to Ivan Pedroso and world record holder Mike Powell. It was set to be and proved, the ultimate fairytale finish.
Nonetheless, it took his last jump in the qualifying rounds to ensure he rose from fifteenth place and dodged elimination. Lewis came into his own in the final though and a spectacular third round leap of 8.50m won him gold by 0.21m. It made the Alabama-born star just the second track and field athlete to win the same event at four consecutive Olympics. In fact, only Michael Phelps has more gold medals to his name in the summer games’ history.
While the majority of highlights regarded US athletes, there was some minor cheer for Team GB. Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent secured the UK’s only gold medal in Atlanta in the coxless pair. For the former, it proved an incredible fourth victory in as many games.
Ireland’s most decorated Olympian of all time also graced America in the form of swimmer Michelle Smith. The County Dublin star secured gold medals in the 400m freestyle, 200m individual medley and 400m individual medley.
Andre Agassi made history on home turf by becoming only the second tennis player to ever win the career Golden Slam. His Olympic gold added to victories in the Australian, French and US Opens as well as Wimbledon. The only other player to achieve this? His wife, Steffi Graf.
YJA Senior Correspondent