It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the Summer Olympic Games were in Atlanta.
I lived south of town and worked for a newspaper when the rest of the world was introduced to kudzu, grits and “y’all.’ Unless third-world countries had access to “Deliverance” on VHS – and a VHS player – they had no idea the river for kayaking was the same where one of four city slickers on a canoe trip was told to “squeal like a pig” by a moonshine mountain man.
My days then were filled with covering beach volleyball at Atlanta Beach, and evenings of basketball and boxing. It was a busy, hectic and fun time.
I was assigned to follow the unlikely path of a boxer from Riverdale. Rhoshii Wells divided his time between the U.S. Boxing team and high school classes to win a bronze medal in the Middleweight Division. Wells was a protégé of Evander Holyfield, another Riverdale fighter, and Evander and I talking about Rhoshii’s promising career.
Twelve years later, Rhoshii was shot and killed while walking down a street in Las Vegas. I broke the news to Evander. That’s all I have to say about that.
I remember watching children dancing in the water fountains in Centennial Park the night before Eric Rudolph set off a bomb hidden in a backpack while Mack Jack and the Heart Attack played. Less than four years earlier, I was at the private NASCAR championship party hosted by Alan Kulwicki, and his band of choice was Mack Jack and the Heart Attack.
I was amazed how marathon runners had to figure out a course that included the following instructions: take Peachtree to Peachtree and turn right. Then go to Peachtree and turn left. Make a left on the second Peachtree and follow the signs to the next turn … on Peachtree. If you’ve ever been to downtown Atlanta, this makes perfect sense.
But what I remember most about the Atlanta Games are pins. Hundreds and hundreds of pins.
My wife was addicted to collecting and swapping Olympic pins. She waited in parking lots to catch mall employees before the doors were open to get a jump on the next shipment of pins. She was part of an underground network of collectors, and like most, she was obsessed with one pin created by The Varsity, one of the iconic fast-food restaurants in the South. That pin featured five onion rings positions to resemble the Olympic rings. Needless to say, the International Olympic Committee didn’t like it, and they went to court to force The Varsity to focus more on their hot dogs, real onion rings and orange drinks than with Olympic merchandise.
Suddenly The Varsity pin was a must-have. My wife wanted one so badly, she was supposed to meet a man downtown at 1 a.m. to make a deal. Because the asking price was more than my first car, I told her she couldn’t go. It may have been the only argument I ever won during our marriage. Twenty-five years later, The Varsity still is regarded as the most-coveted, and hardest to find, pin from the 1986 Games.
I forgot how many pins she collected until I found them during my recent move. Every sport, every country and every sponsor were included. All were neatly positioned in books that were created especially for pins. I don’t know if they’re worth anything now. There are hundreds of them, including a selection of more than 200 Paralympic pins from 1986. But when my wife died of cancer in 2005, they became more valuable to me as a memory – an expensive memory – than as an investment.
Besides, I still have boxes of Beanie Babies and Hard Rock Café guitar pins, too. She didn’t do anything half-hearted.
Between summer and winter Games, there have been 11 Olympics since Atlanta. So much has changed since – both for the Olympics and Atlanta.
The Tokyo Games, which were delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, will open on Friday, July 23. There will be no fans allowed as a precaution to the coronavirus. There also will be a man from New Zealand competing as a woman in weightlifting.
Everyone in Clay County will be watching with eager anticipation to see former Clay High swimmer Caeleb Dressel compete in the 50 and 100 freestyles, the 100 butterfly and the 4X100 freestyle relay.
Atlanta has changed, too. Centennial Olympic Stadium eventually became Turner Field, the home of the Atlanta Braves. Now it’s Center Parc Credit Union Stadium and home to the Georgia State Panthers football team.
The Olympic Torch is still standing, just north of The Varsity, but the Georgia Dome where they played basketball and gymnastics has been imploded.
Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, where they played baseball, was bulldozed to become a parking lot for Centennial Olympic Stadium. Now it’s home to tailgate parties ahead of Georgia State games.
The Chattooga River still carves the border between Georgia and South Carolina. The white-water rapids attract kayakers and canoers along a geographical formation now known as Deliverance Rock.
If you close your eyes, you can still hear “Dueling Banjos” in your imagination. You can also see Muhammad Ali lighting the torch to open the Games. And I can see legendary Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes beat fellow Americans Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh for the beach volleyball gold.
Although it was 25 years ago, it seems like yesterday.