My Experience Volunteering at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Georgia Tech, photo, flags

I shared earlier, as a lead-in to the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Atlanta Olympics, how I was involved as a college student in the efforts to win the rights to host the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.  Once again, though not exactly a travel topic, I use my blog to share my experiences related to the 1996 Olympics.  In this installment, I will talk about my experience in preparation for and during the Games.

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Georgia Tech, photo, flags

ilivetotravel in full Envoy uniform

Becoming an Olympic volunteer

Let’s rewind to around 1994, when I was informed about a role that was going to be seeking volunteers for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and that I should apply as a natural follow-on to my involvement in the efforts to win the Games.  The role was called Envoy and there would be one per participating delegation.  The purpose of the role was to be the liaison between the Organizing Committee and the particular country’s delegation focusing on the relationship with the head of the delegation, or Chef de Mission as they are called in Olympic lingo.

I interviewed and was named to be the Envoy for Chile, perhaps because having found no candidate from that country, I was next best since I had lived there for 3 months a few years before (and, of course, I spoke the language).  The requirement for the role was that we would attend weekly meetings from 1994 to 1996 and that we would be full-time available a total of 6 weeks before and during the Games.  My employer at the time (Andersen Consulting) allowed me to use up my vacation to cover these six weeks and, when my vacation bank ran out, they graciously offered me 50% of my pay as their way to show support for my involvement and I took the rest of the time without pay.  More importantly, my employer allowed me to be staffed in an intown project (vs. traveling every week which I had been doing for almost 3 years up to that point) so I could participate in the weekly meeting which took place Tuesday nights.

Two years learning about the Olympics

The weekly meeting for two years was required as there was a lot to learn.  From the processes the delegations would have to deal with (registration, arrival, drug testing, ordering box lunches for training sessions, and on and on) to the sports venues, the sports themselves, the workings of all aspects of the organizing of the Games, etc.  Every week for two years close to 200  of us gathered at the Georgia Tech electrical engineering building auditorium (where I sat many times during my college years!!) for these sessions.  We, the folks who represented Latin American countries tended to cluster together and have a blast during all this.  A couple of others joined us because they also were fun though they did not represent Latin American countries (the envoys for France and Canada come to mind!).

It was fascinating to understand the workings of this complex endeavor.  And, as we reported to the Olympic Village organization, it was fascinating to understand how you launch a small town of 20,000 for a 6-week life span (delegations can arrive as early as two weeks before the start of the Olympic Games, hence why we had to be available for more than the duration of the Games).  Many Georgia Tech dorms and frat houses were refurbished, new mattresses were brought in, and the security zones and mechanisms had to be installed.  Delegations were strategically scattered around the campus based on many factors like delegation size, threat levels they could have (think the Israeli delegation… also of note, Iran was placed right by the highway – no threat likely to them!), and proximity with like or unlike countries (big Latin –read, party- countries were placed together in an area north of campus separate from the rest; think Italy, Spain, etc.), etc.

The Atlanta Olympic Village at Georgia Tech

The Village was a phenomenal place.  It had a zone open for visitors who got invited by delegations or Village officials.  This included the main cafeteria.  And then it had a higher security zone with restricted access to the residential part of the Village and other more private areas for the athletes and officials.  Envoys got to stay in the residential part of the Village too so we could be close to our delegations if need be.  We probably got the worst spots.  Ours was a frat house that, while I am sure had been cleaned up some, was still a little on the not-nice side so I opted to stay home and just deal with waking up super earlier to make our daily 6AM meeting.

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Georgia Tech, photo

The frat house where I was able to stay at the Village

Georgia Tech, Olympic Village, Chile delegation, photo

My delegation’s house and my Chef de Mission on the left

We did get to dine with athletes at a number of facilities around the Village.  There happened to be a McDonald’s tent right behind my delegation’s house.  You could smell the hundreds or thousands of burgers cooking!  And athletes from other countries, especially those without any or many McDonald’s, absolutely loved it.  Not sure there coaches did…  The main cafeteria was great.  I ran into a few famous people whether athletes, coaches, or visiting VIPs.  Two that stand out were Dolph Lundgren (who was there as a coach and who SO patiently stop his meal to get up to have his picture taken with athletes), and the Queen of Spain.  Towards the end of the Games, my delegation let me have two of their limited guest passes so I could have my Mom and stepdad come visit and eat at the Village.  To his last days with the use of his memory, my stepdad so enjoyed telling people about the time when he ate at an Olympic Village – I was so blessed to be able to give them the opportunity to be at the Village!

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Georgia Tech, photo, cafeteria

My wonderful Mom and I at the main cafeteria at the Village

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Georgia Tech, photo, cafeteria

Meal tickets for the cafeteria

My job as an Envoy

I had a small team working with me as my delegation was not big but it was not tiny.  There were to associate envoys and two drivers in the team.  One of the neatest things about this was that I got to invite two good friends to apply for these positions and work together during the Olympics!

My day to day work was to be of service to the Chef de Mission and accompany him wherever he needed to go.  (In reality, his number two really ran the delegation so I supported the delegation through him but I spent more time accompanying the Chef de Mission around).  Because of this requirement of the role, that meant we had to have the same access as the head of the delegation which gave me access to any space, seating area, etc. in the Olympics.  There was only one place he could go that I could not:  the field of play (being the boxing ring, the basketball court, or the area immediately around a swimming pool).  But these access rights allowed to sit in the area reserved for officials if I wanted to watch an event.  As long as a delegation official did not need a seat, I could take it.  Often I was with him but sometimes when he didn’t need me, I took advantage of this to watch some event or another.  It was cool.  I saw quite a few good and important events!

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, handball

Medal ceremony for men’s handball

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, tennis, Atlanta, 1996 Olympics, Olympic Games, photo

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario playing

Eraser, Arnold Schwarzenegger, premiere, 1996, Atlanta, Olympics, Olympic Games, Georgia Tech

The premiere of Schwarzenegger’s Erase was held at the Olympic Village!

The Atlanta Opening and Closing Ceremonies

One super neat privilege this role gave me was the ability to go to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies without having to buy a ticket as I was expected to accompany the delegation to those events.  For the Opening Ceremonies the delegations were sat in an old stadium neighboring the Olympic Stadium (Fulton County Stadium which was demolished after the Olympics were over).  There they awaited the start of the Parade of Nations when they would walk into the Olympic Stadium and then stand in the field for the rest of the ceremony.  I sat with the Chilean delegation as they waited their turn.  Someone missed cuing the delegations in a timely manner at the start of the process and we ended up having to run between the two stadia to get them there on time.  This was a scary moment as our Chef de Mission was in his 70s and not necessarily fit.  It was a bit terrifying but we made it. At the point they would enter the stadium, the Envoys broke away and ran through inside tunnels to then re-join the delegation for the last third of their march.  I am not fully clear why we were not allowed to just march with them the whole way but I am grateful we were allowed to do some of the march as it was an experience to march in the Opening Ceremonies of an Olympic Games!

Atlanta, Olympics, Opening Ceremonies, Olympic Games, 1996, Parade of Nations, pass, defile des delegations, Olimpiadas

The pass that allowed me to march with a delegation!

One of my biggest regrets is that I did not lug my camera around all over with me.  Things were too busy and these were days far from smartphones and social media so you did not feel the need to capture every moment of life – back then we just LIVED life.  I ran into famous people (royalty, politicians, famous athletes, etc.) but there are no pictures.  I got one photo of me in the Opening Ceremonies thanks to the envoy to Ghana who had a disposable camera at the Opening Ceremonies and graciously took my photo!

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Opening Ceremonies, cauldron

Clearly not the best quality but my only photo at the Opening

The Opening Ceremonies took place on a hot day (July in Atlanta…) and that evening it was hot and humid especially in the field in the stadium where there was less chance of a breeze.  Having all these people stand waiting for a couple of hours or more was a bit like torture.  I kept myself busy trading pins (my delegation had given me, like they do every member of their delegation, a bag of Chilean pins so I could trade!), taking in the entertainment, etc.  Sadly, an official in the Polish delegation had a heart attack during the Ceremonies and would die from it due to the stress to his body that night.  Olympics since have gone ahead and provided seating so the delegations do not have to endure this two hours or more of standing – it was highly inconsiderate to have required them to stand in 1996 and earlier especially since the athletes will be competing in a few days after the Ceremonies (the ones who would compete the next day seemed to skip that night so they could be well rested).  I presume they did not give them seating before so they could sell more tickets to the public (the dirty little secret is how much a business the Olympics really are and even corrupt as later events would reveal about members of the International Olympic Committee – a pseudo-royalty who lives in a world of perks and political intrigue…).

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Closing Ceremonies, Gloria Estefan

Me awaiting the start of the Closing Ceremonies! (the one waving!)

Anyway, the Closing Ceremonies were a different affair because seating was planned for the delegations.  Of course, as soon as the opportunity arose (when the official business of closing the Games and passing the flag to the next host finished and the musical part of the show began), many delegations jumped “the fence” and got into the field to dance and enjoy themselves.  Go figure!  I did not miss a beat and followed my delegation though I pretty quickly lost them in the mayhem in the field.  It was a fun time and we had some disposable cameras this time which allowed us to take a few shots to remember the night by.  I recorded the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at home and watching the recording of the Closing Ceremonies always makes me smile.

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Closing Ceremonies,

Partying during the Closing Ceremonies in midfield!

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Closing Ceremonies, Gloria Estefan

Gloria Estefan performed at the Closing Ceremonies

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Closing Ceremonies, Gloria Estefan

Bringing down the Olympic flag during Closing Ceremonies

Remembering the entire experience makes me smile.  To me the Atlanta Olympics were nothing like the negative image portrayed.  Everything worked as well as any city can with tons of visitors.  The spirit of Atlantans was evident in the welcoming attitude, the staying away from driving as much to minimize traffic, and the incredible number of people who served as volunteers in every possible job imaginable.  I was and am proud of my city.  The Olympics may be a weird animal but it certainly allows the world to come together and change the conversation for two weeks every two years.  I am glad I got to see it from the inside and have the experiences I did!

Atlanta, Olympics, 1996 Games, volunteer, Envoy

With some of my favorite people (but not all!) from my time as an Envoy

 

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My Grain of Salt in Atlanta Winning the 1996 Olympics

German Rieckehoff, Olympics, Atlanta, Raul Pino, bid, Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech Olympic Coalition, Puerto Rico

My blog is about travel and this post may seem a bit off-topic but I hope you will indulge me because it is the 20th anniversary of the Atlanta Olympics and because my fascination with travel is related to all these places on Earth we call countries – which, in turn, get together every few years in peace for an event we call the Olympics.  And I am fascinated by seeing all those places…

A Georgia Tech student volunteering for the bid

As a college student at Georgia Tech in the late 1980s, I heard that Atlanta was going to bid for the right to host the 1996 Olympic Games.  It sounded a bit far-fetched but, at the same thing, it sounded so exciting.  I quickly learned that fellow students had created an organization to help greet the International Olympic Committee (IOC; they would choose the host city) members when they visited Georgia Tech which was suggested as the Olympic Village.  This was back in 1989 and the movement was grassroots way before social media existed and people developed hysterics about grassroots campaigns being enabled by social media.  The Georgia Tech Olympic Coalition (GTOC) was set up by students and was, initially, staffed by students getting ready for the first IOC visit to the Tech campus in May 1989 when IOC members from five countries would come to check out Atlanta and OUR campus (I only remember Japan, Sweden and Finland of the five but remember creating a massive banner in all the languages!).  We not only created the massive banner (an all-nighter) but had students in several locations with balloons ready to show the spirit, and a student from each of the visitors’ countries ready to greet them in their native language.

I left that summer for an internship out of town but when I returned faculty and staff had joined our student-launched coalition.  And we loved having the support -and wisdom- of our faculty and staff.  We got to work side-by-side, no patronizing the students, with amazing individuals from a EE professor, to the head of Registration (and her awesome staff), to the landscape and physical plant folks, and many more.  It was an incredible experience to continue to support visits by the IOC VIPs to our campus (even if some of them turned out to be corrupt as later scandals revealed…).

In any case, my main job consisted of finding students at Tech or at any university in the Atlanta area from the country of the IOC visitor and then get them prepped so we could be sure and deliver the personal touch.  That personal touch in everything done by the AOC (Atlanta Organizing Committee) and GTOC, I am sure, won the day after the first round of voting took place in Tokyo in 1990…  One thing I will say is that, while GTOC was still a student-only organization, we came up with the idea of selling bid t-shirts for $5 to raise funds to support our expenses!  (Namely, helium, balloons, banner raw materials, etc.)  Not even the committee organizing the bid had come up with the idea of selling t-shirts!  I like to think we were first in commercializing the Atlanta Games…

Olympics, Atlanta, Raul Pino, bid, Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech Olympic Coalition, welcome

Working hard to prepare the grounds at GT for the IOC visits!

Olympics, Atlanta, bid, Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech Olympic Coalition, welcome

Entrance to the Wardlaw Center on North Ave. with the flags of visiting IOC members

I personally got to welcome the IOC members from Puerto Rico (Germán Rieckehoff Sampayo; because I grew up in P.R.) and from Hungary (Pal Schmitt, a future president, because we could not locate any student from Hungary; thanks to Frau Venable, my German teacher, who spoke some Hungarian and taught me a greeting that made Mr. Schmitt think I was Hungarian!).

German Rieckehoff,IOC, ilivetotravel, Olympics, Atlanta, Raul Pino, bid, Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech Olympic Coalition

Luckily for me, someone snapped and gave me this photo of Mr. Rieckehoff’s visit!

German Rieckehoff, Olympics, Atlanta, Raul Pino, bid, Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech Olympic Coalition, Puerto Rico

Me giving Mrs. Rieckehoff a pin or something!

German Rieckehoff, Olympics, Atlanta, Raul Pino, bid, Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech Olympic Coalition, Puerto Rico, IOC

Mr. Rieckehoff being greeted by GT President Crecine with Billy Payne looking on (me, front left)

Celebrating winning to be the host city of the 1996 Games

Anyway, fast forward to the day when the 1996 host city decision was being announced in Japan (September 1990).  The announcement was expected right before morning rush hour began that day in Atlanta.  I had been up most of the night inflating balloons (I actually can be seen in an WXIA Ch. 11 news clip that morning!) for the celebration should we win the bid at Underground Atlanta.  I went home for just a little bit and was back early enough to be on the steps of Underground Atlanta as the announcement was made.  It was an incredible feeling to see the dream of Atlanta hosting the 1996 Olympics come true!

Atlanta, 1996 announcement, Underground Atlanta, Olympics, host city, 1990, ilivetotravel, Raul Pino

Waiting, in the wee hours, for the announcement (me toward the left)

Atlanta, 1996 announcement, Underground Atlanta, Olympics, host city, 1990, ilivetotravel, Raul Pino

iivetotravel in the middle of the cheering!

Atlanta, 1996 announcement, Underground Atlanta, Olympics, host city, 1990, ilivetotravel, Raul Pino

A few seconds after hearing the news (me in the center, half-hidden)

As a reward for our work, when the victory parade took place, GTOC volunteers walked along the Georgia Tech Ramblin’ Wreck in our loud yellow t-shirts – and, again, I can be seen in video from newscasts about the parade (yes, I have those news shows in DVDs now that I converted my old VCR tapes!).

Atlanta, Olympics, victory parade, AOC, ACOG, GTOC, host city, 1990, Raul Pino, ilivetotravel

GTOC volunteers awaiting to start the victory parade!

Atlanta, Olympics, victory parade, AOC, ACOG, GTOC, host city, 1990, Raul Pino, ilivetotravel

With fellow GTOCers waiting to start the parade – always clowning around…

Atlanta, Olympics, victory parade, AOC, ACOG, GTOC, host city, 1990, Raul Pino, ilivetotravel

With fellow GTOCers waiting to start the parade. I think am the only student in this pic.

Atlanta, Olympics, victory parade, AOC, ACOG, GTOC, host city, 1990, Raul Pino, ilivetotravel

Atlanta, Olympics, victory parade, AOC, ACOG, GTOC, host city, 1990, Raul Pino, ilivetotravel

Me in the midst of the parade in downtown

Atlanta, Olympics, victory parade, AOC, ACOG, GTOC, host city, 1990, Raul Pino, ilivetotravel, Ramblin Wreck

GTOCers (me on left) parading along the GT Ramblin’ Wreck!

So, I end this write-up here but the best part comes when in 1994 I was selected, after interviewing, to be an Envoy for the delegation to the Games from Chile, where I had worked three years before.  The Envoy was a relatively new role in the Olympics and it was focused on being the liaison between a country’s delegation and the Games.  I would spend two years of weekly meetings preparing for the role and then 6-weeks around the actual Games as part of this role which afforded many, many wonderful experiences that will be with me as long as I have memory – or get to read this blog, as I plan to write about that in the near future.

It’s been twenty years since the Olympics transformed my city and left an indelible imprint in my mind.  Wow.

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