2008-08-21

1996 Olympics Was A Special Time in Athens

Note: This was originally published on "Eye on Sports Media".

Athens, GA (Aug 21, 2008) - August 1, 1996 was a unique and special day in the long history of the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium. There were no English Boxwood Hedges in sight, and the bunting of the the Olympic Games covered any visual signs that you were inside the UGA football stadium. 76,000+ people filled the stadium to watch, horror of horror, women playing for the gold medal in futbol in a stadium built for American football.

As the United States women prepare to face Brazil in today's gold medal futbol game against Brazil, it is not hard to think back to that night in Athens, where the US team defeated China 2-1 for the first ever gold medal in the sport. Even though there were 10,000 or so empty seats in the stadium, the electricity and energy were unlike any other that people had experienced in that stadium. The unbridled joy of the players after winning, flashbulbs going off all over the stadium in the darkness of the night, and people (like me) truly falling in love with the international game. Never before in the history of Sanford Stadium had a female competed in a sport on that grass field, and the 1996 Olympics changed that.

Fierce alumni were upset that their beloved hedges had been removed for the Olympics. In fact, just eight months earlier, we watched from the television booth in amazement as fans and platers (including players from Auburn) tore the hedges apart during and after the SEC football game so that they could have a piece of history. But nothing like what happened during that magical week in Athens, Georgia has happened since, and will likely never happen again. Sure, the Georgia Women's Soccer team is a rising force in collegiate soccer, but they will not and cannot ever play a game in that stadium for a simple reason: it is not configured for futbol.

For those of us that were in Sanford Stadium for the medal round games for men and women, and our friends in the cummunity, these are memories that will be with us forever, and memories we do not want to forget. Just ask my friend Rocky Oliver. The day after the game, he and his family were walking into the International House of Pancakes in Athens, just up the road from the stadium. As they were walking in, some members of the women's team were walking out. They got to talk with Mia Hamm and she let his kids hold onto her gold medal. Sure, we can watch the games on television. But it is just not the same.

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