If it weren’t for COVID, there’s a good chance that right now you’d be sitting on the couch watching the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan instead of Netflix. But instead the games have been postponed until next year and could be cancelled altogether if the coronavirus remains a global threat.
In the meantime, let’s look back at a time when the world was COVID free and over 10,000 athletes gathered in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics. It was the first time in history that all 197 countries that received invitations showed up at the games.
Here is a list of the top five moments from the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.
1. Muhammed Ali Lights Up the Night
The games opened on July 19, 1996 and as usual it was kept secret who would be lighting the Olympic Cauldron. So, fans were shocked and delighted when three time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, emerged as the final torch bearer.
Ali, who was living with the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, received the Olympic flame from swimmer Janet Evans and then slowly bent down to light a small rocket that eventually carried the flame to the red cauldron which induced a thunderous roar.
The legendary fighter, who threw his 1960 Olympic gold medal in a river after being confronted by a group of white racists 36 years earlier in Louisville, had come full circle as an Olympian.
2. Centennial Park Bombing
On the eighth day of the games, a backpack bomb that had been left under a bench in the middle of Centennial Olympic Park killed one person and injured over 100 others.
Security Guard Richard Jewell, who discovered the bomb before it exploded was first hailed as a hero but then just a few days later he was identified as the main suspect.
Finally, three months later, Jewel was cleared by the FBI but not before his reputation had been destroyed by the media. His story was covered in Ep. 12 of History of the 90s. The real bomber, Eric Rudolph was arrested in 2003 following a five year manhunt.
3. Donovan Bailey Becomes the Fastest Man in the World
In one of Canada’s most iconic sports moments, Donovan Bailey shot to victory in the men’s 100 metre sprint posting a record breaking time of 9.84 seconds.
Heading into the race Canadians were hoping the defending world champion could help erase the memories of 1988, when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold after testing positive for steroids.
Bailey dedicated the victory to his uncle Keith, who was dying of pancreatic cancer. What Bailey didn’t know is that his uncle had died prior to the race, but his family kept the news from him until after his record-breaking run.
A week later, Bailey added another gold in the 4×100 relay along with teammates Bruny Surin, Glenroy Gilbert and Robert Esmie.
4. Keri Strug & the Magnificent Seven
Heading into the 1996 Olympics no women’s U.S. gymnastics team had ever taken Olympic gold. The event had been dominated by the Russians since 1948 but that was about to change thanks to a pintsize dynamo.
Going into the vault, the U.S. was leading Russia in team competition and 18 year old US team member Keri Strug who was the last to perform needed to complete a clean vault to maintain their narrow lead. On her first vault Strug was successful but she injured her ankle badly.
With her coach Béla Károlyi urging her on loudly from the sidelines Strug limped to the start line and took off for her 2nd jump. When she landed, another crack could be heard from her ankle but Strug held her pose just long enough to get the judges’ recognition before she collapsed.
The jump was enough to secure a win for the US team which made history by beating the Russians by a margin of just over 8-10ths of a point.
In one of sport’s most memorable images, Károlyi carried Strug to the podium, where her teammates helped her stand long enough to receive the gold medal.
5. Carl Lewis Jumps into History
U.S. track legend Carl Lewis entered the Atlanta Games with eight career gold medals, and the controversial athlete was hoping to bring home another one.
But at the age of 35, chances were slim for Lewis who was a surprise qualifier in the long jump. Lewis “ran through” his first jump and notched a ho-hum 8.14 metres (26.71 feet) on his second leap. However, his third leap of 8.5 metres (27.89 feet), though well off any records or personal bests, held up as the top jump and earned Lewis his ninth gold medal.
Two years later Lewis, who is considered among the greatest competitors in track and field history was named Sportsman of the Century by the International Olympic Committee.
In 2003 Lewis, who was quite vocal against athletes who used steroids, admitted that he himself had tested positive for banned substances during the 1988 US Olympic Trials. In response he said: “Who cares? I did 18 years of track and field and I’ve been retired for five years, and they’re still talking about me, so I guess I still have it.”
For more stories from the 1990s make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at Curiouscast.ca.