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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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…).
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.
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!