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1996 Olympics Was A Special Time in Athens, Georgia

Thursday, August 21, 2008 , Posted by Christopher Byrne at 8:00 AM, under

Athens, GA (Aug 21, 2008) - August 1, 1996 was a unique and special day in the long history of the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium. There were no English Boxwood Hedges in sight, and the bunting of the the Olympic Games covered any visual signs that you were inside the UGA football stadium. 76,000+ people filled the stadium to watch, horror of horror, women playing for the gold medal in futbol in a stadium built for American football.

As the United States women prepare to face Brazil in today's gold medal futbol game against Brazil, it is not hard to think back to that night in Athens, where the US team defeated China 2-1 for the first ever gold medal in the sport. Even though there were 10,000 or so empty seats in the stadium, the electricity and energy were unlike any other that people had experienced in that stadium. The unbridled joy of the players after winning, flashbulbs going off all over the stadium in the darkness of the night, and people (like me) truly falling in love with the international game. Never before in the history of Sanford Stadium had a female competed in a sport on that grass field, and the 1996 Olympics changed that.

Fierce alumni were upset that their beloved hedges had been removed for the Olympics. In fact, just eight months earlier, we watched from the television booth in amazement as fans and platers (including players from Auburn) tore the hedges apart during and after the SEC football game so that they could have a piece of history. But nothing like what happened during that magical week in Athens, Georgia has happened since, and will likely never happen again. Sure, the Georgia Women's Soccer team is a rising force in collegiate soccer, but they will not and cannot ever play a game in that stadium for a simple reason: it is not configured for futbol.

For those of us that were in Sanford Stadium for the medal round games for men and women, and our friends in the community, these are memories that will be with us forever, and memories we do not want to forget. Just ask my friend Rocky Oliver. The day after the game, he and his family were walking into the International House of Pancakes in Athens, just up the road from the stadium. As they were walking in, some members of the women's team were walking out. They got to talk with Mia Hamm and she let his kids hold onto her gold medal. Sure, we can watch the games on television. But it is just not the same.

Currently have 1 comments:

  1. Thanks for bringing back those memories. Here's the full story...

    Fist, let me tell you that I was an Olympic volunteer, and since I lived in Athens GA I worked consessions in Sanford stadium. My church (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens) got a cut of the take, so it was a good gig.

    As Chris said, I was at the gold medal round for women's soccer in Sanford stadium - luckily I wasn't working, a friend of mine gave me a ticket to attend with him. The crowd was electric, and the stadium was rocking. There was a huge Chinese contingent in the stands, and we were chanting back and forth. The game itself was rough - there was a lot of body checking, elbows, etc. The girls played a brutal, beautiful, exceptional game, and won the gold medal. I am not ashamed to admit I cried when the game ended, as did most Americans there.

    The next morning (a Sunday), we did what we usually do - I took my family to the IHOP in Athens. As we were walking in the door, Mia Hamm was leaving. I instantly recognized her (it helped that she was in her Olympic warmup suit ;) ), and I stopped her to let her know I watched the game, and that I was truly proud of her and the team, and how they persevered and won. She blushed (this is before she became an international superstar), thanked me, and then bent down to look at my two daughters (Kristi - who was 5, and Kelsey - who was 3). She talked to them for a minute or two, and then asked them if they would like to see her gold medal. Kristi's eyes lit up - she nodded her head, wide-eyed and in awe. Mia then pulled her gold medal out of her fanny pack (!!), and let them hold it. She then put it around Kristi's neck (wow!!) and I thought Kristi was going to explode. She took it off, and Kristi was beaming. She then put it around Kelsey's neck, but held it because it would have hit the ground ;). She gave them both a quick hug, and I thanked her profusely. I told her that she is the definition of a hero in real life, and my family and I would cherish this moment forever. She blushed, and was gone.

    I cannot express how much that brief moment meant to me and my family. As I told her, that is what a hero should be. She proved her mettle on the pitch, but off she was humble, gracious, and generous. She will always be a hero to me.

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