A look back to 1996 and the Summer Olympics on the Ocoee

ALLEN MINCEY Banner Staff Writer
Posted 7/16/16

Editor’s Note: The 1996 Summer Olympics held its whitewater events on the Ocoee River. The 20th anniversary of the Olympics, which ran from July 19 through Aug. 4, will be celebrated this week in a …

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A look back to 1996 and the Summer Olympics on the Ocoee

Posted

Editor’s Note: The 1996 Summer Olympics held its whitewater events on the Ocoee River. The 20th anniversary of the Olympics, which ran from July 19 through Aug. 4, will be celebrated this week in a series of articles in the Cleveland Daily Banner.

Many are remembering one year ago when five servicemen were killed in a terrorist attack in Chattanooga. It is a time that will never be forgotten.

That makes it tougher to look at another anniversary that occurred in our area 20 years ago.

While the deaths south of us brought that community together and led to folks promoting “Nooga Strong,” there was a strength of community in Polk and Bradley counties two decades ago when the 1996 Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta and locally on the Ocoee River.

It was a time when local residents and members of the whitewater community were not sure would ever happen.

Could it be true that Atlanta hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics would lead to the Ocoee River being a venue for canoeing and kayaking competition?

I was working at the Cleveland Daily Banner up to the Olympics, and remember writing stories about the Olympics coming to Polk County, then not coming to the Ocoee River — then here, then not — until it eventually being a reality. I also remember the excitement the Ocoee River would host the Olympic venue, and the wonderment of what that would do to the river by some who didn’t want it to happen.

“We don’t want to become another Gatlinburg,” said some about the Olympics on the Ocoee.

That never happened, though there has been some development in the area, but I am not sure if it isn’t from rafting companies mentioning the Ocoee as the site of the 1996 Olympic venue. There is still a pride in many that the Ocoee River was chosen as the site for the events.

I went back through items I saved from those days, months and, yes, years leading up to the Olympics. I remember the WIN organization promoting Whitewater in ‘96, the Tennessee Ocoee Development Agency (TODA), the work done by the U.S. Forest Service and Tennessee Valley Authority, along with the State of Tennessee and Polk and Bradley counties, and the organizations that wanted the Ocoee to host the races.

“Those in Atlanta who wanted to go down a river would come to the Ocoee,” remembers Joellen Dickey, who helped in getting the Olympics on the river. She said it was a group effort.

While there were times that it was not a certainty the Ocoee River would be the venue, or even if whitewater sports would be included in the 1996 Olympics, she had hopes it would come here.

And it did. Yes, it took many working long hours, meeting with organizations including the Atlanta Olympic group and having visits from such dignitaries as International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch and Billy Payne, who headed up the Atlanta Olympics, to the river.

I had the opportunity to meet both men, and while that was impressive, I was most awed with meeting the athletes. There were language difficulties, as many were not as fluent in English as others. But I did learn some words from different athletes that related to their time on the river.

My favorite remains how to say “thank you” in Russian.

Some teams had very few competitors, while canoeing and kayaking seemed to be one of the biggest sports in others. I was very intrigued by the group from the Czech Republic, which was one of the largest teams and most talented.

Athletes had to adapt to the way of life in the United States, but once they realized that, they fit in nicely with the Polk and Bradley County residents. In fact, some stayed with host families, which became known as the Zoo Crew.

Most athletes, however, stayed at Lee College (now Lee University) in the Olympic Village. Dorm areas were opened up for the athletes, and they would often come to the village late at night and leave early in the morning from the Ocoee, where they got some practice in preparing for the events.

If there were any complaints I heard from athletes or coaches, they related to the distance from the village to the river, as they wish they were closer; but honestly, those were the only times I heard anyone say anything negative about the Ocoee River serving as the venue for the whitewater competition. The athletes were quite impressed with the Olympic course.

Kudos to those who helped prepare the river, including the National Forest Service. I remember seeing some of the movement of rocks within the river, and was extremely impressed with the raising of the Bailey Bridge from one side of the river to the other.

Working as a reporter during the Olympics, I did not get to help with the athletes or events as much as I would have liked.

I do give a tip of the cap to the volunteers who spent hours on the river, and many of them still have their outfits, badges, pins and other paraphernalia they saved from the Olympics on the Ocoee.

I, myself, have many of the books that were handed out during the events, as well as pins from different countries and one given by a friend with the forest service of Izzy, the Olympic mascot, holding a camera. Many are still trying to determine what Izzy was — maybe that was the reason Izzy’s name was so non-descriptive.

I will never forget the Olympics on the Ocoee River, the friends I made, and watching the determination of all the athletes. It is as close to such an event as I will ever get (though I did get to touch the torch as it was traveling through the area on its way to Atlanta, where Mohammed Ali lit the big Olympic torch). I look back and think what a wonderful opportunity we all had, and how Polk and Bradley County showed its best face to not only the athletes, but to the country and to the world. If you were not around then, talk to someone who was there and they will say the same thing. It was very special

It was the community coming together as one.

(Watch for articles this week about the Olympics on the Ocoee River during this 20th year anniversary, beginning Monday with a feature on Bradley County’s own Wayne Dickert, who participated in the two-man canoe event on the river in 1996.)

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