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.
The best action was in the main stadium, where one of the great Olympic athletics meets was held. The sport provided many heroes. American Michael Johnson made history by winning the 200m/400m double, both times shattering the world record, and won a third gold medal in the 4x400m relay. Carl Lewis won his fourth consecutive gold medal in the long jump to end his career with a record-equalling nine gold medals. South Africa celebrated its first black Olympic champion when Josiah Thugwane scored a memorable victory in the men’s marathon on the final day of the Games. In women’s events, France’s Marie-Jose Perec scored her own historic 200m/400m double, most memorably running down a determined Cathy Freeman in the final straight of the 400m. American Gail Devers won her second successive 100m gold medal, and Syria’s Ghada Shouaa became a hero to millions of Arab women in winning the heptathlon.
Other sports produced equally exciting results and worthy heroes. In cycling, five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain of Spain won the road time trial. China’s Fu Mingxia won the women’s 3m springboard and 10m platform diving double. Her teammate Deng Yaping became the first four-time gold medallist in table tennis by defending her singles and doubles crowns from 1992. Volleyball added beach volleyball to its program, and the great Karch Kiraly, winner of two indoor gold medals, partnered Kent Steffes to win the US the men’s event. Russia’s Alexander Popov successfully defended his 50m and 100m freestyle titles in the pool. Turkish weightlifting supremo Naim Suleymanoglu lifted more than three times his bodyweight to secure a record third consecutive gold in the 64kg division. Americans Andre Agassi and Lindsay Davenport were popular singles gold medallists in tennis.
Australian champions such as Kieren Perkins and rowing’s Oarsome Foursome were also mentioned among the best performers of the Games.