With so much talk about this year’s Olympics, I find myself, as usual, looking to the past. I think I am not alone in this, although many of us have different memories, and different levels of pleasure in remembering. There are those who will tell us about the not-so-memorable behind-the-scenes activities during the months leading up to Atlanta’s hosting of The Games in 1996. In fact, fellow Tribune columnist Dick Yarbrough has just published an entire book, “And They Call Them Games.”
According to published ads about the book, he gives his readers an insider perspective of the 1996 Olympics, the Centennial Year of the modern games. I’m not sure I want to know all that. In spite of, or because of, the work done by the Atlanta organizers, the overall outcome was for most of us an event of our lifetime.
I found a few of my own thoughts and experiences recorded in some columns from those days. My column of July 28 of that year was a vivid description of my personal involvement which had begun months, even years before “as I filled out proper forms and proceeded with accumulating over 96 hours of volunteer work within my community, a prerequisite for volunteering at the Games.”
“As July 1996 approached, we were given rehearsal schedules and uniform pickup dates. We attended orientation in April in the new stadium where we met our ‘partners in line’ and where we actually took the field in forming five rings of enthusiastic volunteers.
“There were about 600 of us, and we would be serving as field marshals during opening and closing ceremonies. Rehearsals were long and sometimes grueling, but our leaders were masters of their art and eventually it all came together. The final two rehearsals were complete with audiences, and when July 19 showed up on the calendar, we were ready. We arrived at Olympic Stadium on schedule around 3 in the afternoon with over six long hours ahead of us before we would actually go onto the field. The time passed, not quickly, but not unbearably slow. We were held captive in Fulton County Stadium where the athletes were assembled as well. They were visible to us across the stadium, but were under security measure and not accessible to us. We passed the time exchanging rumors about the performance and the traffic and our shuttle buses and closing ceremonies… And finally, it was time and we made our way through the tunnel and onto the field. We took our positions and the athletes began to file in. Our duty was to ‘marshal’ them, to be sure they were in their places, safe, happy, and comfortable. Although the parade of athletes took over two hours, the time seemed not to matter to anyone on the field or in the stands. The enthusiasm of the athletes was contagious and the conclusion of the ceremonies was so emotional, it will be a moment none of us will ever forget.”
There were other great moments throughout those weeks … so many venues, so many exciting games, so many new friends.
In a later column, five years ago, I tried to put it all in perspective. “There are probably statistics that tell the unemotional, detached story in terms of numbers. But for every number, there is a personal story. And this is mine. The memory never goes away. For this column, I looked through my mementos – a box of pins, including the ones made especially for volunteers; the printed programs for Opening and Closing Ceremonies; photos and clippings from newspapers and magazines; the video that daughter Mary made for me, and which I intend to watch tomorrow, 20 years after the event. I’ll be singing ‘The Power of the Dream’ right along with Celine Dion. I also have my car tag at the time, with the Olympic insignia, and another car tag craftily attached as the roof for a birdhouse; a book of photos of the Olympic quilts; a fanny pack and ID tag; and my favorite, a commemorative edition of Olympic Monopoly in which Park Place and Boardwalk are Athens 1896 and Atlanta 1996. I cherish those memories, and as the song says, ‘You can’t take that away from me.’ I know there are literally thousands of Georgians who have different memories, and I know that most of them are good memories. And I hope that visitors and athletes felt welcome and fulfilled as well. I feel true gratitude to all those who worked to make it happen.”
Pythagoras lived 550 years before Christ. He has been credited with this quote: “Life resembles the Olympic Games. A few men strain their muscles to carry off a prize; others bring trinkets to sell to the crowd for a profit; and some are there (and not the worst) who seek no further advantage than to look at the show and see how and why everything is done.” And then there are the rest of us …. the volunteers. We were all winners. Some things never change.