A lasting legacy: the 1996 Olympics and the park that pushed Atlanta into the spotlight

ATLANTA — One of the biggest legacies of the city is Centennial Olympic Park. More than 20 acres in the middle of downtown Atlanta were created when the city was launched onto the international stage.

The architects of Atlanta’s Olympic dream -- Billy Payne and then-Mayor Andrew Young -- embarked on expanding Atlanta beyond the civil war and civil rights.

Atlanta would be an Olympic host.

“Atlanta had always harbored dreams of becoming truly international. Well, that dream had come true. It was international,” former Channel 2 Action News anchor John Pruitt.

With corporate partners and an army of 160,000 volunteers, it would happen.

At the center of it all, they wanted to construct a place to unify everyone. The 1992 summer games in Barcelona, Spain had Plaza de Espana.

“We didn’t have one. And so I looked out and there it was, just before us. The only problem was there were about 80 separate pieces of real estate,” Payne said.

But the vision was there for 21 acres in downtown Atlanta. A lot of blight, warehouses and empty buildings needed to be cleared for what would become the centerpiece of the summer games.


Some property owners donated their land. Atlanta’s corporate community, foundations and thousands of “brick buyers” did the rest, eager to make it happen.

“No tax dollars have gone into the building of it. This park was made possible by the generous gifts of those who love Atlanta,” former Gov. Zell Miller said.

The park’s construction wrapped up just six days before the opening ceremonies. It was the gathering spot, a venue that brought people together to celebrate the games.

But then on July 27, 1996, a bomb rocked the park.

“During the Olympics, we investigated 100 bomb threats a day,” said A.D. Frazier, who was the chief operating officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Security guard Richard Jewell spotted the suspicious pack and alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He helped evacuate the park.

Two people died. More than 100 were injured.

Jewell was a person of interest in the bombing, but his name was cleared years later. A plaque at the park honors his heroics.

“Be would be very thrilled, but he would say, “That was my job, Mom, and I did it.” And that was Richard,” his mother Bobi Jewell said.

Nowadays, the spectacular Olympic rings greet visitors entering the park off of Centennial Olympic Park Drive.

Numerous statues and plazas adorn the grounds.

“We believe the park was sort of the spark that lit the torch for the development we see around here,” said Frank Poe, executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center.

Titans of international business made Atlanta home, drawn to the heartbeat of the 1996 Olympic games.

“It was a huge plus to this city and thrust it into the international arena as no other event could’ve done,” Pruitt said.

Altering the landscape of a city and the lives of its residents.

“I think clearly the park is the greatest physical legacy of our games,” Payne said.

Eric Rudolph was convicted for the 1996 bombing and is currently in prison in Colorado.

Centennial Olympic Park reopened three days after the Olympic bombing. Volunteers swarmed the park to welcome visitors from around the world with more fanfare than organizers had expected.