The Atlanta Olympics was a Games of extremes: outstanding sporting action on the field, and a string of organisational problems and serious disasters off it. The low point of the Games was the terrorist bombing of the packed Centennial Park, killing an Olympic fan. The transportation system struggled to cope with the crowds, some official buses getting lost on their way to venues, as summer temperatures soared to sweltering levels. Yet through the tragedy of the bombing and the blunders of organisers, the excellence of competition did much to revive spirits and inspire others.
The Games began with a flourish with a trembling Muhammad Ali, boxing gold medal winner in 1960, lighting the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremony. He was cheered by athletes from 197 nations, 28 more teams than had ever before attended the Games. It would be the United States that would lead the medal table with 44 gold, with American swimmer Amy van Dyken’s haul of four gold medals the best of any athlete of 1996. The program was expanded to 26 sports and 271 events, with softball, mountain biking and beach volleyball among the inclusions.
Australia at these Games
In 1993 Sydney had been elected by the International Olympic Committee to host the 2000 Olympics. Atlanta was the first Games after that famous decision, and it helped to spark even greater interest in Australia’s Olympic campaign than usual. Not that much extra impetus was needed – in preparation for Sydney, Australia sent a record team of 424 athletes, 254 men and 170 women, to the Atlanta Games. Most notable is the number of women, easily more than double the then-record 74 women who had competed in Seoul just eight years earlier. The team’s size was matched by its talent, with Australia achieving its greatest ever Olympic result in winning 41 medals: nine gold, nine silver and 23 bronze.
Andrew Hoy, a team gold medallist in three-day eventing in 1992 and competing in his fourth Olympics, carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony. It proved a worthy choice, Hoy again winning a gold medal when he, Phillip Dutton, Gillian Rolton and Wendy Schaeffer successfully defended the team eventing title.
Two other repeat champions were swimmer Kieren Perkins and rowing’s men’s coxless four, both winners in 1992. Perkins thrilled Australian audiences by first scraping into the Australian Olympic team, then taking the eighth (and last) qualifying place in the 1500m freestyle final before swimming a remarkable race from an outside lane to win the gold medal. Teammate Daniel Kowalski won the silver medal, plus two bronze medals in the 200m freestyle and 400m freestyle.
The Oarsome Foursome had a new look for Atlanta, with Drew Ginn replacing Andrew Cooper, who had retired after Barcelona. But the result was the same as Ginn, Nick Green, Mike McKay and James Tomkins again won gold – in a racing shell named Andrew Cooper in their mate’s honour. McKay carried the Australian flag at the Closing Ceremony.
Swimming and rowing also provided new gold medallists. Susie O’Neill won the women’s 200m butterfly, as well as a silver and a bronze medal in relay events. Rowers Megan Marcks (then Still) and Kate Slatter won the women’s coxless pair, the first Australian women to win rowing gold.
At the shooting range, Australia was in for a double surprise. Shotgun shooters Russell Mark (double trap) and Michael Diamond (trap) each won gold medals. Australia’s only previous shooting victory had been in 1900 – and Donald Mackintosh’s win at those Paris Games wasn’t confirmed until 1992. Mark and Diamond would each mount strong defences of their titles in 2000.
The Hockeyroos, Australia’s women’s hockey team, won its second gold medal in three Olympics. Coached by four-time Olympian Ric Charlesworth, the team boasted such stars as Alyson Annan, Rechelle Hawkes and Nova Peris, who was to represent Australia in athletics at Sydney 2000. There was also gold medal success for the popular tennis doubles team of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. The Woodies entered the Games as the world’s top-ranked doubles team. Their win was Australia’s first in tennis at the Games.
Other strong results were achieved across the sports, from Cathy Freeman's tenacious silver medal in the 400m on the track to bronze medals in the new events of beach volleyball and softball. It was a Games of many highlights and surprises for Australia, with much to celebrate and plenty to look forward to in Sydney in four years' time.