Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Olympic Experience: 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta

By Steven Shaff, NAU Media Relations

Northern Arizona student-athletes, coaches and staff will be blogging from London over the course of the next two weeks. This is the second in a series of blogs about the 2012 London Olympics.

I posed proudly at Fulton County Stadium in the press box at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
In 1994, I volunteered for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games held in Atlanta. They were going to be held a five-hour drive from Gainesville, Fla., where I worked at the University of Florida in the media relations department, two years later. How many times were the Olympics going to be within driving distance? It was a great opportunity and I had to do it.

I secured a spot on the media team for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) as a writer. We were randomly assigned sports to cover for the ACOG website, producing recaps and features during the games. The goal was to serve as a news service for the event in Atlanta. 

To qualify for my position, I had to cover a test event in Atlanta during the summer of 1995 to earn my credentials. I was chosen to cover badminton. Now, I had played badminton once or twice but knew nothing about the event. I had to do a lot of homework. The biggest challenge was doing interviews via translators, as most of the top players did not speak English. It was a difficult task but I got the hang of the sport, the interviews and my responsibilities.

We were not paid for the work or provided housing. So my first task in preparation for the following summer was to secure a place to stay. I needed to be in Atlanta for the duration of the games – two weeks. After asking around, I found that a friend of my dad’s daughter lived in Atlanta and would be willing to “rent” me her spare bedroom. The cost: Florida-Georgia football tickets. As a UF employee I got two tickets every year to the game in Jacksonville called “The World’s Biggest Cocktail Party”. I worked the games so I had no use for the tickets. While it hurt me to give my tickets award to a Bulldog fan, they helped me in a big way.

The plan was to take vacation – all of my vacation that year – to work in Atlanta. I was not super excited to cover badminton but I was going to the Olympics. Two weeks before I was to travel to Atlanta, I got a call from my boss at ACOG. My assignment had been switched to baseball.

Now I have been a baseball fan all my life and had just finished my first season as the baseball sports information director for the Gators. We went to College World Series, finishing third in the nation in 1996. Our top player was a freshman named Brad Wilkerson, who would go on to play in the 2000 Olympics and win a gold medal.

Obviously, I was excited beyond belief. I arrived in Atlanta to the credential processing site to get my pass and uniform. All employees were required to wear the Olympic uniform, including shirt, pants, belt and shoes. We actually got two shirts so you did not have to do laundry every day.

I stayed in Marietta, which is North of Atlanta so I had the pleasure of taking MARTA through downtown to Atlanta-Fullton County Stadium, the baseball venue and then home of the Atlanta Braves. I watched a World Series games against the Yankees their later that year.

One of my top memories of my experience was attending the practice Opening Ceremonies. It was the full show minus a few of the celebrities. If you remember Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron, so he had a stand in. I think it was a Wednesday and all the volunteers were invited to attend. I was amazed the stadium was full.

I had to cover three games a day and write at least two features each day. I had a seat in the press box with my own Olympic broadcasting television that had every feed from every venue. I could watch anything I wanted to. It was cool.

R.A. Dickey
The United States roster included of host of future Major League players including current Met R.A. Dickey (Tennessee), former Diamondbacks Augie Ojeda (Tennessee) and Travis Lee (San Diego State), Troy Glaus (UCLA) and Jacque Jones (USC) to name a few. Overall, there were eight countries participating: Australia, Cuba, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Nicaragua, South Korea and the United States. 

Over the next 10 days, I covered every game of the Olympic tournament. Cuba was the top team in the world and Japan and South Korea were pretty good too. I remember penning features on Jones, who was one of top collegiate players in the country, and the Italian baseball team after a big victory.

The United States finished third behind Cuba and Japan.

Centennial Park from the ACOG offices in downtown Atlanta.
I had one day off during the event and took advantage of the free time to visit the Olympic Centennial Park in downtown. I had lunch in the park area and wanted to stay for a concert later that night. But I was exhausted and had plans to have dinner with my hosts.

Later that night, there was a terrorist attack via pipe bomb that killed two people and injured 111 at Centennial Park. With the recent news about the shooting in Aurora, Colo., the feelings I had about the incident have been on my mind this week. Even though I was not there at the time, I was that day. It was scary. I did not feel safe and my Olympic experience was tarnished. Would there be another incident? I almost went back to Gainesville. 

I did a couple interviews with the newspapers in Gainesville and Tucson with reporters that knew I was in Atlanta. They asked if I was going to stay. I decided that the incident was not going to send me running. I decided it was one bad person who did a very bad thing. I was not going to leave. I would finish my responsibilities.

Today, July 27, is the 16-year anniversary of the bombing and the start of another Summer Games in London. I will watch the Opening Ceremonies with great excitement for many reasons including my own experience.

I also will remember watching four years ago and the pride I felt when Northern Arizona’s Lopez Lomong was the flag bearer for the United States. It will be a special night and a memorable next two weeks.

Let the Games begin!


  1. Great blog! Thank you Steve.

  2. I am planning on seeing the summer olympics in London in 2012. I was wondering what you thought were the best parts of your olympic experience?

  3. The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lot of information is helpful in some or the other way. Keep updating the blog, looking forward for more content...Great job, keep it up.