Emory's Olympic legacy

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | July 31, 2016

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Patrick Kelly, a physician assistant with Emory University Hospital, was a torchbearer during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. All photos by Emory Photo/Video.

Editor's note: It's been 20 years since Atlanta hosted the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. As the 2016 Summer Olympics begin this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we revisit this article highlighting Emory's role in our city's moment in the international sports spotlight.

Even after all these years, Patrick Kelly can't resist watching visitors pause before a display case in Emory University Hospital that harbors a piece of history.

He never reveals that the Olympic torch on view was the very one he carried, helping guide the flame during its long trek from Greece to Atlanta during the 1996 Centennial Olympics — one of only two Emory employees and some 40 Emory alumni among thousands of torchbearers.

It is enough, he insists, to watch and remember.

"I don't say anything, but it's nice to see — maybe it takes them to another place, says Kelly, a physician assistant with EUH's pain management center who held the torch aloft as an escort runner pushed his wheelchair the one-kilometer leg of the relay.

"The whole Olympic experience was a high point of my life," Kelly recalls. "I really did feel like a participant, like I was a part of what was going on in Atlanta."

Sixteen years ago, Atlanta had Olympic fever, and Emory University was very much a part of the team that helped bring the historic games to town, housing officials and journalists — along with a few top-secret VIP guests — while also serving as a training facility for world-class athletes and a news center for foreign journalists.

The 1996 Olympic Games have long been credited with helping Atlanta establish its modern metropolitan identity, spurring a movement to revitalize downtown and strengthening the community's ability to attract new industry and tourism.

But looking back, what was the Olympic legacy for Emory?

Eyes of the world upon Emory

Standing along Clifton Road on July 18, 1996, it must have felt as if Emory was ground zero for the Olympic Games — an outpouring of thousands of employees jammed the sidewalks to cheer the Olympic Torch Relay.

It was a memorable turnout for an event that would eventually touch so many corners of the campus, recalls Karen Salisbury, chief of staff to the vice president of Campus Services, who was director of University Conferences at the time.

Torchbearers on Clifton Road

Atlanta had been an unlikely choice to host the Centennial Games. But when it won the designation in 1990, Emory joined the larger metro community launch into planning mode.

"The University saw it as a way for Emory's name to be broadcast around the world, and also to be seen as a partner with other Atlanta institutions to make this happen," says Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president.

"It was also a way for us, as a university, to transcend the old canard that Emory was this aloof institution off in the suburbs that didn't really care about what happened in the city," he adds. "That never was the case, but it meant that however we could, we should step up."

And the University did.

The pool at the Woodruff Physical Education Center became a practice facility for synchronized swimming, swimming and water polo events. Track and field athletes and baseball teams also found training space on campus. Olympic banners festooned the landscape, and it wasn't unusual to find world-class athletes strolling the Quadrangle.

The University also utilized another rich resource — residence hall rooms. Hundreds of Olympic officials and journalists were housed on campus, along with Emory alumni, who were permitted to stay and attend the Games. The Oxford College campus also welcomed athletes and coaches.

Sychronized Swimmers

However, Emory's most famous on-campus guests remained a closely-held secret.

At the last minute, the University was asked to host the U.S. women's gymnastics team — a group dubbed "The Magnificent Seven" who would become the first U.S. gymnasts to score a team gold medal.

"They wound up staying at what was then the Chi Phi fraternity house," Salisbury recalls. "For safety, we kept it quiet. On the radio, their code name was ‘The Flower Shop' because they kept getting so many flower deliveries."

But one of Emory's most important lingering Olympic legacies? "We had one more convincing reason to ask the trustees for resources to air condition all of our residence halls," Hauk reveals.

"Up until 1993 and 1994, students would move in and the bookstore would do a booming business of renting window fans."

Art and the Olympics

For a few weeks, the campus took on an international flavor, as the Cox Hall Ballroom was transformed into a news center for the Olympic foreign press.

"Every language in the world was spoken — it was as cosmopolitan as you could get," recalls John Connerat, executive director of IT finance and administration who managed the news center for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Connerat remembers an energized scene: "You had journalists trying to do their jobs in a foreign country while experiencing all the frustrations of 1996 technology, which consisted of lots of photocopiers and banks of fax machines. You'd see people on deadline waiting in line to fax their story to Jakarta."

Despite the number of visitors — there wasn't an empty bed to be found — the campus met with few security challenges, aside from a few false bomb threats and a mysterious package that was delivered to U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug, who had famously injured her ankle during her final event, recalls Emory Police Chief Craig Watson.

"It was a concern, because nobody was supposed to know they were here," Watson says. "As it turned out, it was a very innocent thing — some ace bandages. In fact, we still have a framed, autographed poster of the women's gymnastics team that they gave to us as a ‘thank you' when they moved out."

Beyond athleticism, the games also provided an important artistic venue. Emory played a role in the Cultural Olympiad, a series of cultural events held in conjunction with the 1996 Olympics.

Michael C. Carlos Museum staffers curated two milestone exhibits: an on-campus show by acclaimed Alabama artist Thornton Dial and an ambitious off-campus exhibition, "Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South."

"It was one of the first times that this work — African American vernacular art —had been shown on such a large scale in the city, and it honored part of our Southern heritage," recalls Catherine Howett Smith, associate museum director.

"It certainly showed our strength as a regional museum — thousands and thousands of people saw them — and also showcased our resources," she adds.

How to measure an Olympic legacy?

For Atlanta, the Games brought decided economic gains.

But that benefit wasn't felt by everyone, notes Michael Leo Owens, associate professor of political science.

"We did see the Olympic Games serve as one of the factors that led to the creation of metro Atlanta as we now know it — an international city, a region good at attracting people to it," he says.

"But I also think of some neighborhoods that were promised investment that may not have realized those gains. Collectively, the region benefited. Individual communities may have found it hard to see what the actual benefit was," he adds.

At Emory, the Olympic legacy is measured in something beyond profit margins; Salisbury saw the University tested and strengthened by the experience.

"In typical Emory fashion, the collaboration among people was significant," she recalls. "It took everyone — the tech support, parking and transportation, the police department, facilities. It was something that was a positive opportunity, and Emory wanted to make sure that we presented who we really are to the world."

"I think it solidified us," she adds.

Connerat also saw the Olympics as "accelerating Emory's ability to react more quickly, with so many people involved at every level," Connerat says. "We created proof that we could do things faster than we ever did before."

Not only did an Olympic role increase the University's visibility among visitors from around the world, it created a level of community involvement and goodwill that remains hard to quantify.

"I think it was one of those rare experiences that create both a heightened level of stress and, at the same time, a heightened expectation about the possible good that could come out of it," Hauk says.

"By the end, when things had turned out well, it was the occasion for a lot of high fives," he adds.