Friday 22 June 2012

1996 Summer Olympics Atlanta: XXVI Olympiad and X Paralympics

1996 would be the Centenary of the Modern Olympic era and many people felt in their heart that Athens would be the natural place to take the Games for the XXVI Olympiad. Indeed that sense of history that Athens played up in the candidate presentation at the 96th IOC Session in Tokyo in September 1990.

 However, they were not as well prepared for hosting a modern Games as some of its competitors, plus the demand by their bid leader that they had the historical right to host the centenary Games wasn't univesally popular. Though Athens did lead the bidding on the first round and again after round two when Belgrade, Yugoslavia were eliminated. With the elimination of Manchester, UK there was a tie between Athens and Atlanta. Melbourne, Australia who had come second in round two but lost votes in round three were eliminated with half of their 16 votes going to Atlanta and the rest split evenly between Athens and Toronto, Canada. But with the Canadian's eliminated the head to head led to an extra 17 votes for Atlanta and only 5 for Athens making it a 51-35 final vote.

Twelve years after the last Summer Games in the USA they were to return to the third city in that nation to host the Games And the only Country so far to have hosted four Summer Games.

Nations 197
Competitors 10,320
Sports 26
Events 271

19 July to 4 August, 1992 hosted by Atlanta, Ga., USA 


Nations 104
Competitors 3529
Sports 20
Events 508

16 to 25 August, 1992 in the same venues

There were fourteen countries that were making their Olympic debut in 1996, 10 had debuted in the Winter Games of 1994. Of the first category Azerbaijan, Burundi, Cape Verde, Comoros, Dominica, Guinea-Bissau, Macedonia, Nauru, Palestine, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were all for the first time taking part in any Olympics. While the first Summer turn outs for Armenia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Slovakia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan after their winter sportspeople had appeared in Lillehammer.

It was also the first time Russia were to appear at the Summer Games since their last appearance in 1912.

With the result of the USSR and Czechoslovakia break up there was obviously some new medalists, though they weren't the only debut nations to medal
Stepping up in distance to give a coach a chance

One of those medals listed above was the only one that Burundi have won so far in the Olympics. But for Vénuste Niyongabo it was only his second ever race at the 5000m distance, he was better established as one of the World's top 1500m runners.

He had actually taken bronze that the 1995 World Championships for the 1500m and was scheduled to appear in that event in Atlanta. But he sacrificed his place in that race to that another Burundi athlete, Dieudonné Kwizera, could take his place.

In 1987 Kwizera had come third in the 1987 All Africa 800m final and the following year had come third in the IAAF Grand Prix final behind Tom McKean and Seb Coe. But because in 1988 and 1992 Burundi did not have an Olympic Association he had never got to be an Olympian during his peak years. Kwizera had come to Atlanta purely as a coach, though he was given the honour of carrying his nation's flag in the opening ceremony, until Niyongabo gave up his spot in the 1500m. Although he did not progress from the first round he had achieved his ambition to be an Olympian.

Niyongabo was relatively quiet for the first part of the race only moving up to fourth after 3000m, then briefly taking the lead before 800m but USA's Bob Kennedy made his bid for a medal and came past him after about 40m. But with 450m to go opening up a 10m lead at the 200m mark from Khalid Boulami (Morroco), Paul Bitok (Kenya) and Dieter Baumann (Germany) the reigning champion. But he was tiring in the last 100m and Bitok was closing fast with the others just behind. But the Burundi athletes decision to go so far out paid off and he took gold home.

The 'Greatest' Cauldron LighterThe final bearer of the Olympic Torch is always guarded with secrecy. In 1996 there was a living legend to carry out the honour of lighting the cauldron. The 'Louisville Lip' was one of the South's greatest sportsmen who as Cassius Clay had gold in the light heavyweight boxing in Rome in 1960.

Ali's history with the Games was checquered as he in 1975 he apparently threw his Gold medal into the Ohio River after being denied service in a 'whites only' restaurant. Even as a World Heavyweight Champion he was still prejudiced against in the Deep South.

During a Basketball Game at the Atlanta Games Ali was presented with a replacement medal.

First and last for Hong Kong

In 1997 Hong Kong was going to be handed back to China by Britain. But they had never won an Olympic medal. Mistral sailer Lee Lai-Shan was their best hope to break that having won the world championships on 1993 and coming 3rd and end in 1995 and 96.

She lived up to expectations indeed by the time she finished in front in the penultimate race of the nine race regatta she had already done enough with four seconds, one third, fourth and seventh to not even get on her board for the medal race. Her net points of 16 were not going to beaten by any of her closest opponents even when they discarded their highest score to take a win.

Four years ago she had the honour of carrying the Olympic Torch twice, she was the first person to carry it when it came to Hong Kong and also the last to carry it as it lit the cauldron at the Qingdoa International Marina for the sailing events own opening ceremony.

She was to represent Hong Kong, China in the next two Olympics taken her total to 4 Games coming 6th in Sydney and 4th in Athens. But she was the first and last time that the British Colonial flag ever flied during an Olympic medal ceremony while the National Anthem played.

Fourth time lucky

 Australian visually impaired swimmer Kingsley Bugarin had been two three previous Paralympics and not yet stood on top of a podium. Though he had first been a world Champion in 1990.

In 1984 in New York he took two silver and one bronze, but in 1988 in Seoul only managed 3 bronze, before 3 silver and a bronze in Barcelona. At 28 he was lining up for his fourth Games and it was to be his break through Games.

In the end he was to take gold in the 100m and 200m breststroke as well as the 200m individual medley. Plus silver in the 100m butterfly and 100m freestyle and bronze in the 400m freestyle in the B2 category. He was to retain his titles in 100m breaststroke and 200m IM titles at his home Paralympics before retiring from international competition.

Triple gold for Ireland
In 1996 there was a single 50m pool anywhere in Ireland. Indeed it would be 6 years before the first one at the University of Limerick was opened, followed by one in Dublin in 2003 with the first in the North opening here in Bangor before the end of this year. Therefore it is somewhat of a shock that Ireland's most decorated Olympian should be in the pool.

But in 1996 one woman took away three golds and a bronze from the Atlanta pool. The first was on the 20th July when Michelle Smith won the 400m individual medley. It was Ireland's first ever swimming gold and also the first medal even won by a woman representing Irland. It came just 8 years after the country's last gold in boxing and 40 after the one before that. The next wait for gold lasted only 2 days when the 400m freestyle again went to Smith when she was 1.05 seconds faster than the defending champion Dagmar Hase of Germany.

It would be another 2 day wait for Ireland's next gold when in the 200m IM she completed her hat trick. A further 2 days later she tried for a fourth gold in the 200m butterfly but could only manage bronze.

There was some suspicion at the time in how Smith had managed to improve so much for her third Olympics, suspicions that were further raised when two years later she was banned for using alcohol as a masking agent in a drugs test. However, her Olympic medals were not removed and she remains Ireland's most successful ever Olympian, having taken all four of her countries medals in these Games.


 Although it was only a demonstration sport in Atlanta the most aggressive wheelchair sport, wheelchair rugby was added to the family, the other Paralympic demo sport was sailing. 

It is a game that is full of clashes of chairs unlike basketball which like its Olympic equivalent is 'non-contact' sport rugby is a full contact sport.

Unlike basketball however it requires the users to have some lose of function in at least three limbs. This is why the need for dribbling meant that some wheelchair users couldn't take part in a team sport to an equal level and so rugby filled that niche. 

In the inaugural event the USA beat Canada in the final with New Zealand beating Great Britain in the bronze medal match.

Women no longer merely foiled

It had been 72 years since women had first been allowed to fence at the Olympics, but while the men had had a choice of three blades the women had until now only been able to go en garde in the foil. Atlanta saw the intorduction of the épée to the women's event. On the second day of competition the first women's Olympic épée final turned out to be an all French affair.

It was between Laura Flessel, who had been a former foil exponent until she announced her retirement in 1991 after breaking her fencing arm, and Valérie Barlois.  For Flessel coming out of retirement and picking up the épée proved most successful, over the first three épée events she would pick up a completer set of medals as well as teaming up with Barlois and Sophie Moresse-Pichot for team gold in 1996, team a further team bronze in 2004. Her five Olympic medals are two more than any other French female Olympian.

Bulgarian Turk Pocket Hercules

Atlanta saw the Naim Süleymanoğlu step up from the -60kg category to -64kg in weightlifting. He was going for a third Olympic gold in a row in the slightly modified Olympic weight divisions the first time they had changes since their introduction in 1920.

After the snatch in which he lifted 147.5kg taking a 2.5kg lead into the clean and jerk. He had failed at his first attempt at that weight and his opponent Valerios Leonidis had pulled the weight over his head at his only attempt with his third lift at that weight . He and Leonidis had yet to lift when all the other competitors had finished their third lifts. China's Xiao Jiangang had managed 177.5kg for a total of 322.5kg.

They both started with 180kg lifting that easily. Süleymanoğlu stepped up for his second lift at 185kg at the time a world record for his weight and lifted it first time. Leonidis has passed 185kg and went instead to 187.5kg which he lifted taking the world record higher. Süleymanoğlu stepped up and matched it with his third and last lift, but had to sit and watch while Leonidis had one lift left and attempted to lift 190kg which would have tied the total of 335kg but given him gold due to being a lighter lifter. He failed, but on the podium the Turkish lifter kissed his Greek opponent in contrast to the state of their two nations historically.

Süleymanoğlu had become the first lifter to win gold at three golds at consecutive Games. It could have been four but for the Soviet led boycott of 1984. Süleymanoğlu was born in Bulgaria and had set his first world record at 16 before the Games in Los Angeles. Shortly after those Games Bulgaria forced their Turkish minority to change their names to Bulgaria he became Naum Shalamanov. In 1986 he defected while at the World Cup Final in Australia before heading to Turkey to claim citizenship. This lead to a dispute about him being able to represent Turkey at the Seoul Olympics which was settled for $1,250,000.

He attempted to make a come back for the 2000 Games but failed in the snatch on his three attempts at 145kg in the -52kg category, this would have been a World record at the time but was beaten by two other lifters. He therefore ended his Olympic career with three no lifts.

Mozambique's first medal

Mutola in red edging out Kelly Holmes for bronze
In 1992 Mozambique had hoped to secure their first medal at the Olympics through a 19-year-old  800m specialist, it wasn't her first Games as a 15-year-old she had gone to Seoul. It wasn't to be and she only game in fifth but she was back in Atlanta to try again, having run the world's best time in each of the years in between as well as World Champion.

Maria Mutola it was who had the hopes of her nation on her shoulders. She ran fastest in the semi-finals and only Britain's Kelly Holmes had run faster than her in the heats.

She had not been beaten in over forty 800m and 1000m finals in a row, when she lined up for the final. In the end she was only to cross the line in the bronze medal spot, edging out Kelly Holmes into 4th.

Four years later however, she was to achieve Mozambique's first gold with Kelly Holmes in third this time. Another four years and these two were there again. This time is was Holmes crossing the line first with Mutola going from 2nd to 4th in the last two strides of the race. In 2008 she appeared in her 6th and last Games only the 4th track and field athlete to do so, she ended up in fifth once again. But had been in the top five of the last five 800m Olympic finals.

Keeping up the gold standard

Not only had Great Britain taken part in every Summer Games but they are also the only country to have won at least one gold at every Games.

Our world record holder and world champion triple jumper Jonathan Edwards only managed silver this time. So it fell on the broad shoulders or a 34-year-old going for a fourth gold in four Games to make sure the run trailing back to 1896 was not broken. With 500m to go in the men's coxless pair Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent were just over a length up but the Australian and French pairs starting to close in.

At the end as pictured after winning by half a length Redgrave for the first time in any Olympics looked exhausted. As he was interviewed even before getting out of the boat at the pontoon he famously said:

"Anybody who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me."

However, within two days he had told Pinsent he wanted one more go and the fifth gold was forthcoming in Sydney 2000.

Off road on yer bike

Cycling added a new discipline to the track and road events that had been part of the Games for so long. Mountain biking took place over the tough course out at the equestrian park at Conyers, the men raced over 48.7km while the women did 31.8km.

In the men's race in the morning of 30 July Dutch world champion Bart Brentjens set off fast from the start leaving the competition behind. After 2 hours 17 minutes and 37 seconds he was to take the initial gold medal in the event over 2 and a half minutes clear of his nearest rival Thomas Frischknecht of Switzerland.

He would carry on to take bronze in 2004.

But sitting in 9th place in that race there was an Australian 19-year-old who would in his home Games in four year's time rise to 7th in what was his last mountain bike competition before turning to the road's full time having already won the Tour of Tasmania in 1999. That young Australian was Cadel Evans who if he takes part in these Games will be his fourth Games having taken part in the road race in 2008.

The women's race on that afternoon was won by Italian cyclist Paola Pezzo just over a minute clear of Canada's Alison Sydor who had done the reverse move from Evans going from road to cross country actually in the 1994 Commonwealth Games medalling in both.

The Golden Slam Couple

 Only three people have so far won a career golden slam in tennis. But the first man to do so won his Olympic gold in his own nation in 1996.

It was still three years before he would add the last of the career slam titles the French Open but Andre Agassi had already won three of the titles he would need.

It was also a little over 5 years after picking up his Gold Medal that he would marry the only women's player who has so far won a singles golden slam (which she did in a calendar year) Steffi Graf.

Therefore Agassi and Graf truly are the golden couple of tennis

Read also the full list of my posts about the past Olympics

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