Atlanta ‘96: Revamped exhibition at Atlanta History Center celebrates, scrutinizes Olympic Games

1996 Summer Olympic’s mascot Izzy. (Photos and imagery courtesy of Atlanta History Center).

The revamped and reinvented 1996 Olympics exhibit at the Atlanta History Center has reopened with a new focus on urban change and the intersection of sports and politics.

“Atlanta ’96: Shaping an Olympic and Paralympic City” is a 2,600-square-foot exhibit featuring hundreds of artifacts and images about the city’s unlikely successful bid for the 26th Olympiad and the mega-event’s impact on the metro area.

Like the original exhibit that opened in 2006, it includes historic sporting moments, medals, torches and the terrorist bombing that marred the event as recently depicted in the controversial movie “Richard Jewell.” But the revamp comes in an era when the Olympics is under renewed scrutiny for expense, displacement of residents and other effects, and when the Games and pro sports in general are wracked with controversies over players engaging in political protests. The new exhibit follows those themes with looks at how the Olympics changed life here and includes local protest movements.

A model of the Olympic Cauldron.

Exhibit curator Sarah Dylla compared the Games to “this big splash, and what are all the ripple effects of people trying to involve themselves in different ways, whether that’s aligning themselves with it or reacting to it? It’s all … civic participation, and I’ll just make a push for how important those types of lessons are today, that we all need to find ways to make our voices heard more.”

The original exhibit had what Dylla calls a “sports hall of fame” approach, where visitors walked around a mock footrace track to follow a day-by-day recounting of the Games. That nostalgic exhibit was suitable for an audience that still had fresh memories of 1996, Dylla said.

The new exhibit frames the bigger picture of what the Olympics likes to call the “legacy” — the long-term changes from the Games. The exhibit begins with the story of Atlanta’s longtime dreams of international prominence, redevelopment and sports glory; the growth of the Olympics itself into a city-changing mega-event; and how those trends intersected in 1996.

The Olympic Stadium under construction in 1994 in Summerhill.

The exhibit then tells not only the sporting story of the Atlanta Games, but also how it changed the city. Through some interactive elements, it invites viewers to think about what and how they would like to change about their neighborhoods and society. The idea, Dylla says, is to treat the Olympics as “the civics lesson that it is.”

Particular people and organizations that seized the Olympics moment for change are highlighted. One is Buckhead’s Shepherd Center, whose advocacy saved the Paralympics — a related Games for athletes with disabilities — from being cut from the program as a money-saver. The Paralympics became a firm partner of the Olympics after that, and Dylla said the local advocacy helped to improve accessibility in the city.

The late activist Ethel Mae Matthews is another person highlighted in the exhibit. The Peoplestown resident was a prominent protester against stadium projects, including the Olympics stadium, that demolished homes and displaced residents in areas long afflicted with racial segregation and poverty. As a private business deal, the Olympics offers little or no input from residents affected by its plans. Matthews’ story is one of many of residents who organized in an attempt to gain transparency and influence, and who were precursors of what is now a global protest movement critical of the Olympics and similar mega-events.

A 1996 Olympic Gold Medal.

One piece of 1996 history deliberately left out of the exhibit is its most infamous name: Eric Rudolph, the terrorist who set off a bomb in Centennial Olympics Park. The exhibit addresses the bombing and names the victims and Jewell, the security guard who warned people away from the bomb before being wrongly suspected of planting it. After a “big discussion,” Dylla said, History Center staff decided it was “interesting and powerful” to deny Rudolph himself the notoriety of being named.

The new exhibit is intended to last 10 to 20 years, Dylla said, until interpretation and perspective inevitably changes for another era.

“Atlanta ’96” was intended to open in July to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but this year’s edition was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as was the exhibit. The Sept. 18 opening date coincided with the 30th anniversary of the International Olympic Committee announcement that Atlanta was awarded the Games.

The History Center, located at 130 West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead., was still operating under pandemic restrictions at press time, including timed ticketing, limited attendance and required mask-wearing. The pandemic conditions mean that some interactive elements of the Olympics exhibit will be suspended for now. A substantial online version of the exhibit is planned for a revamped version of the History Center’s website.

For tickets and updated visiting information, see atlantahistorycenter.com.

Inside the exhibition at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead.
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