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Atlanta Celebrates 20th Anniversary Of 1996 Olympic Games

By Karen Rosen | July 17, 2016, 3:36 p.m. (ET)

Performers form the Olympic rings during the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 19, 1996 in Atlanta.

ATLANTA -- It was a night for dreamers and doers.

With the Rio 2016 Olympic Games only 20 days away, Atlanta turned back the clock 20 years.

Athletes, volunteers, officials and spectators from the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games came to Centennial Olympic Park Saturday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the pivotal event that introduced the world to the “New South.”

Atlanta bid for the Games using the slogan "Live the Dream," so naturally the anniversary slogan was "Relive the Dream."

And so they did. Pin traders gathered, volunteers wore their official shirts and mingled with co-workers they hadn't seen in years and films and speeches recalled the bidding process, Muhammad Ali's unforgettable lighting of the cauldron and fantastic achievements on the field of play.

"I just want to see the energy back here," said Carl Lewis, who won his fourth straight long jump gold medal in 1996 at age 35. "Atlanta's a wonderful city and look how it's transformed over the years."

International business boomed in Atlanta and Centennial Olympic Park, which was built in a blighted area of downtown, is now surrounded by attractions including the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the College Football Hall of Fame, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and a gigantic Ferris wheel.

But in 1996, the attractions were the athletes.

Besides Lewis, basketball player Teresa Edwards, swimmers Janet Evans and Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, Magnificent Seven gymnasts Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps, and Dream Team member Mitch Richmond and coach Lenny Wilkens enjoyed the festivities. Paralympic athletes were represented by fencer/swimmer Curtis Lovejoy and wheelchair racer LeAnn Shannon.

Billy Payne, the Atlanta Olympics chief who conceived the idea of bringing the Games to his hometown, said “one name appeared on the top of every list,” to invite to the celebration.

That name, of course, was Ali, who died in June.

Evans, who passed the flame to Ali at the Opening Ceremony, told the crowd, “I remember feeling like the stadium was going to fall down.”

Being part of that iconic torch-lighting ceremony, Evans said, “really helped me understand the Olympics aren't always about winning. It's about participation and courage and grace under pressure.

“Atlanta, for me, was a very wonderful reminder of the Olympic spirit and of what the Olympics brings to people who aren't necessarily athletes. It helped me once I retired really make that transition into, 'I'm not an athlete any more, I'm not always going to win gold medals, but I can make differences elsewhere.'”

Evans' presence at the celebration acknowledged not only the past, but also the future of the Olympic Movement in the United States. As vice chair of the Los Angeles 2024 bid committee and director of athlete relations, she hosted a town hall for about 50 Olympic and Paralympic athletes Saturday morning.

The event in the park gave Atlanta a public opportunity to figuratively pass the torch to Los Angeles. Casey Wasserman, chairman of the LA bid committee, was on the stage for the official program.

“We really are following in the footsteps of giants,” Wasserman told Payne, “you, your great team and the Atlanta Games.”

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The 1996 Games were the first of the modern era in which every nation that was invited participated – all 197. Of that number, 78 countries won medals.

There were 37 world records – most memorably Michael Johnson's victory in the 200-meter in his golden shoes – and 112 Olympic records.

The broadcast audience was 35 billion cumulative viewers and 3.5 billion separate viewers.

From 30 people working on the Games, the number increased to 60,000, including 50,000 volunteers.

Atlanta sold almost 9 million tickets, still the record for any Olympic Games.

“And listen to this,” Payne said. “We sold more tickets to the women's events, almost 4 million, than Barcelona sold for their entire Olympic Games, so it's pretty obvious that history has saluted Atlanta as being a major breakthrough for women in sports.”

Female participation increased dramatically in Atlanta, and so did recognition. Soccer and softball joined the Olympic program and the U.S. promptly won gold medals in those sports, with soccer drawing 85,000 fans to the football stadium on the University of Georgia campus in Athens.

Team USA also won its first team gold medal in women's gymnastics and its third in women's basketball.

Edwards, the top medal-winner in basketball – male or female – with four golds and one bronze, agrees with the dubbing of Atlanta as “the Women's Games.”

“We were showing the USA and America what women can do beyond college on the basketball court and soccer was doing it, gymnastics; softball was there. All the women were doing their things and I think we set a tone that is still out there. I think we changed the game for women in sports all over the world, not just in America, with those Games.”

With another Olympic Games on the horizon, Scott Blackmun, CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, said Team USA will “carry the spirit of Atlanta with us as we travel to Rio.”

He added, “The Olympic Movement in the United States is stronger and healthier now than it ever has been and I can tell you that we're still benefiting from the extraordinary wave of inspiration that you provided to the people across the country in 1996.

"We wanted to help them celebrate the great legacy that exists here.”

Payne, who wore his blue blazer from 1996 and was pleased to announce that it still fit perfectly, said Atlanta impressed the IOC with its Southern hospitality and diversity.

“We introduced the world to a part of America that was only known in two ways, civil wars and civil rights,” he said. “They discovered that on top of that, we were very friendly, engaging people, and we won the Games because we made friends and continued to make friends.”

Payne's greatest ally in the bid process was Andrew Young, then mayor of Atlanta and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Young told the crowd, “you have to be certifiably insane” to think Atlanta could win the Centennial Games that Athens, Greece, believed was its birthright.

He said his staff was not as enthusiastic as Payne.

“They said, 'There's some crazy guy out here and we don't want you to meet with him because you're as crazy as he is,'” Young said.

“Atlantans are given to fulfilling impossible dreams. We got so much joy, so much fulfillment, and it did so much for this city.”

Centennial Olympic Park has re-launched its "adopt-a-brick" program, hoping to add 100,000 bricks for expansion and improvements to the 400,000 already in place.

In the 1990s, Wasserman bought an Olympic brick engraved, “Laura & Casey Love forever” with a heart. His girlfriend later became his wife.

Now he'll try to pave the way for the Olympic Games to come back to Los Angeles, which has already hosted the Games in 1932 and 1984.

Payne said he “was so delighted to see when Los Angeles decided to bid, because the composition of the bid brings to the Olympic Movement exactly what it needs. It exhaustively uses existing first-class sporting venues mitigating the amount that needs to be built, therefore the amount of money required to do so. They have people that embrace the Olympic spirit and have done so going back nearly 100 years. So it's the perfect city and I'm so hopeful that the Games will return to the United States in 2024.”

Payne added that he sees the “better half of me” reflected in Wasserman.

“He doesn't possess all the bad traits that I did,” Payne said. “Their bid is great leadership supported by a wonderful mayor. Innumerable U.S. Olympic athletes reside in Los Angeles, so Casey, we're counting on you, man.”

“You do that so well, you might want to come out of retirement,” Wasserman said.

“No, no,” Payne answered.

He has already carried that torch.