Game Changer: 25 year ago, Atlanta's Olympic moment took the games to a new level
It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago today, July 19, 1996, the Centennial Olympic Games began. The dramatic Opening Ceremony that saw Muhammad Ali light the cauldron was the start of an amazing 17 day run for the city of Atlanta that saw plenty of good (Michael Johnson’s double gold, Andre Agassi’s golden slam, Amy Van Dyken’s pool dominance) and one very, very bad (Olympic Park bombing).
But looking back, Atlanta marked some firsts in Olympic history. It was the first Summer Olympics in which no nation swept all three medals in a single event. (It happened again in 2000 but has not happened since). It was also the first time in Olympic history – summer or winter – that all 197 recognized National Olympic Committees were represented at the Games. It saw the first person to ever compete in nine Olympics – an Austrian sailor by the name of Hubert Raudaschl.
And the Atlanta Games saw the introduction of five new sports: Beach Volleyball, Mountain Biking, Lightweight Rowing, Women’s Soccer (Football), and Softball. With the women of Team USA winning gold in soccer and softball, as well as basketball, tennis singles and doubles, and team gymnastics, 1996 was quickly hailed the Games of the Woman. In the Games that followed, that success continued and the impact grew.
The team gymnastics win was a breakthrough. After ’96, Team USA won bronze in 2000, silver in 2004 and 2008 and nabbed two more gold medals in 2012 and 2016. This after only reaching the podium three times in the previous 14 Olympics. Individually, prior to 1996, only two American women had reached the podium in the all-around competition – Mary Lou Retton won gold in 1984 and Shannon Miller took home silver in 1992. While they once again failed to reach the podium in ’96 and 2000, the last four all-around gold medalists have been American. In fact, Simone Biles will be trying to repeat – something that hasn’t been done since 1968.
The women’s basketball team has won gold in every Olympics since 1996 – six consecutive and counting. This year, two players, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, have the chance to make history and become the only basketball players – male or female – to win five consecutive gold medals. A medal of any kind would tie them with the great Teresa Edwards for the all-time record for basketball medals with five. Edwards has four gold and a bronze.
Team USA dominated softball from the get go, winning the first three gold medals before losing to Japan in 2008 and settling for silver. There have been whispers that their dominance was the reason the sport was pulled from the Olympics (along with baseball) for the 2012 and 2016 Games. However, both are back this year.
After an upset at the 2000 Sydney Games, Team USA came back to win three straight gold medals in women’s soccer before failing to even medal in Rio in 2016. Ironically, that final in 1996 was never broadcast in its entirety in the U.S. until a few days ago. (You can watch it now on the Peacock streaming service as part of a 25th anniversary reunion with the players).
This week, Team USA is sending 329 women and 284 men to the Olympics and Paralympics. It’s the third straight Summer Games with more women than men.
Many point to back to Atlanta in 1996 as the start of a women’s movement in Olympic competition that continues to this day.
One final thought as get ready for the Tokyo Games. At the time, Atlanta was judged very harshly for the so-called commercialism of the Olympic movement. An official report was critical of everything from the food to the transportation to the blatant advertising. While some of the criticism was indeed fair (bus trouble, anyone?), the ensuing years have led many to rethink the management of the ’96 Games. Atlanta relied mainly on private funding making the Games not only financially viable, but creating a positive impact on the city with many of the venues and Centennial Park still in use today. Meanwhile, later hosts, specifically Greece and Brazil, saw facilities become eye sores that were never used again and had their economies ruined because of large government spending to host the Games.
The Tokyo Games officially open on Friday, but early round competition begins in softball and soccer on Wednesday (Tuesday night here in the U.S). With no fans allowed, there will be unprecedented TV coverage. NBC is planning more than 7000 hours of coverage, both live and taped, across TV and digital platforms. Below are some useful links to keep up with it all.
*ED NOTE: We aren't really sure how this years Games will play out as few to no fans will be allowed in venues due to the pandemic*