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Birmingham Proves Its Olympic Bona Fides With Big Events

By Doug Williams | Oct. 13, 2015, 1:22 p.m. (ET)

Runners start the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Marathon on Feb. 7, 2004 in Birmingham, Ala.

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Alabama is the heart of college football country, where the Southeastern Conference reigns and the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn fans is sharp enough to split families.

Yet even in Birmingham, those same fans that live and die with the Crimson Tide and Tigers will embrace futbol as much as football.

The U.S. men's soccer team takes on Guatemala at the 2005 FIFA
World Cup Qualifier.

And, when given the chance, they’ll also turn out in good numbers to watch an Olympic marathon trial, a Davis Cup tie, NCAA gymnastics and track field championships, or boxing, golf and any number of sports and athletes connected to the Olympic and Paralympic movements.

Consider the 1996 Olympic Games of Atlanta, when a first-round men’s soccer match between Team USA and Argentina held at Birmingham’s Legion Field drew a record crowd of 83,810.

“That was very special,” says David Galbaugh, the director of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We had the U.S. vs. Argentina. You talk about college football, Legion Field. That was the highest-attended event in Legion Field history.

“You think back to all those Alabama-Auburn games and all that’s gone on in that stadium, and that was the one (with the biggest crowd).”

Although Argentina went on to win 3-1, Team USA’s Claudio Reyna opened the scoring in the first minute.

“The place just went crazy,” Galbaugh said. “Unfortunately we lost the game, but it was still a great moment for us and for Olympic history in Birmingham.”

Raising Its Profile

Birmingham Crossplex

Traditionally, Birmingham hasn’t had the reputation nationally as a hotbed of Olympic sports. Those spots would be Colorado Springs, Colorado; Lake Placid, New York; or Chula Vista, California — where U.S. Olympic Training Centers are located — or cities such as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Atlanta that have hosted Games.

But for nearly 20 years Birmingham has played host to Olympic- and Paralympic-related events, and the area has stepped up its game since 2004 to bring in a variety of matchups. Galbaugh said a group that includes the city of Birmingham, the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Alabama Sports Foundation, the Lakeshore Foundation, the Bruno Event Team and others, is constantly at work to attract more events.

This year, WBC heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder, a bronze medalist from the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, fought twice in Birmingham. He beat Eric Molina in June at Birmingham’s Bartow Arena, drawing 9,347 fans, then came back in late September in the city’s Legacy Arena to beat Johann Duhaupas in front of a crowd of 8,471.

Earlier in September, the U.S. women’s national soccer team, coming off its FIFA Women’s World Cup victory this summer, beat Haiti 8-0 in front of 35,753 at Legion Field. The crowd was the largest ever in the Southeast to watch the U.S. women’s national team in a standalone game, and players were thrilled with their welcome in Birmingham and the atmosphere.

The 2009 Davis Cup first-round tie.

“The crowd was awesome,” said U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd. “They were loud, they were cheering, they were chanting ‘USA.’ Even when I was sitting on the bench in the second half, there were people all around the bench, behind us, screaming our names. …

“The crowds here. … Just being in Birmingham has been amazing.”

Since 2004, the Birmingham area has hosted the men’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Marathon (2004), a men’s soccer World Cup qualifier vs. Guatemala (2005), a first-round U.S. Davis Cup tennis tie vs. Switzerland (2009), a Federation Cup semifinal tie between the United States and Russia (2010) and the men’s College Cup soccer championships (2011 and 2012). Plus, there’s the annual Mercedes Marathon.

In addition, the NCAA Division I women’s gymnastics championships were held in 2014 at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, and Birmingham’s CrossPlex has become a regular stop for NCAA championships. It’s a rotating host site for the NCAA’s Divisions I, II and III indoor track and field championships since 2013 — with a deal through 2018 — and is also set to host the 2017 Division II swimming and diving and wrestling championships.

The CrossPlex, in fact, is an example of the facilities available in the Birmingham area to attract events. Opened in 2011, it’s considered one of the best indoor track facilities in the country, and it now includes an aquatic center that can host swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo.

Add the CrossPlex to Legion Field, the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, Legacy Arena, Bartow Arena, the facilities at the Lakeshore Foundation (a training site for Olympic and Paralympic athletes and teams) and Regions Field (the new home of the Birmingham Barons minor league baseball team), and the area has a wealth of venues.

Birmingham hosts the annual Mercedes Marathon.

Galbaugh cites the venues as a big point in Birmingham’s favor but said the region’s infrastructure also is important. He said the city is easy to fly into, is easy to negotiate and has plenty of hotels, restaurants and entertainment.

“All that comes into play as well,” Galbaugh said. “Maybe not for the athletes competing, but for the fans coming in. We want to make sure there are other things to do besides watch the competition.”

The Birmingham area is scheduled to be host to the National Senior Games in 2017, the U.S. Women’s Open of golf at Shoal Creek in 2018 and the International World Games in 2021.

When the Birmingham area gets involved in negotiations to bring events to the city, it can point to its history.

“If you’ve hosted the events we’ve hosted, we’ve shown time and time again that we can handle great events and do it in a first-class manner,” Galbaugh said.

Past And Future

In the coming years, Galbaugh said Birmingham will seek other Olympic and Paralympic events, mentioning fencing, wrestling, badminton and gymnastics as possible sports.

Galbaugh, who’s been with the Convention and Visitors Bureau for 20 years — and specifically with its sports department since it was created about eight years ago — has enjoyed seeing the growth in events and what they’ve done for the community in terms of interest, attention and economic impact.

PGA Championship at Shoal Creek.

Plus, as a sports fan, he’s been able to get an up-close view of big events, such as the 2004 Olympic marathon trials in which Meb Keflezighi — who would later win silver in Athens — finished second to Alan Culpepper by just five seconds and just 15 seconds ahead of Dan Browne.

Though that February day was cold and included sleet, Galbaugh recalled seeing a strong turnout of fans along the course to see a terrific race and an eventual Olympic medalist.

“We really do come out and support (Olympic sports),” he said. “We’ve got a ton of events that aren’t typically that college football paradigm where our town and community really love them.”

That certainly was gymnast Bridget Sloan’s experience at the 2014 NCAA Division I Women’s Gymnastics Championships.

Sloan, a silver medalist for the U.S. team in Beijing in 2008 and all-around world champion in 2009, is now a senior at Florida. In 2014, her Gators won the team title and she won a national title in the uneven bars at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex. That came just after competing in the same venue for the SEC championship.

Sloan said the venue “might have been one of my favorite places to compete in.”

Aside from the facilities being good, the atmosphere was special and even welcoming, considering it was in the heart of Alabama and Auburn country.

“It was incredible,” she said. “The arena reacted. They did an awesome job of reactions for every single team, but the arena itself was really nice. I know all of us, we walked in there for SECs and were like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a really nice arena.’”

Nicer still, she said, were the people. All the athletes felt welcomed.

“It’s very nice when the arena people are nice, the ones who volunteer and the ones who work at the arena year-round,” she said. “They did an awesome job.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written to TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related Athletes

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Bridget Sloan

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Mebrahtom Keflezighi