The ‘96 Olympics left an impact on Georgia State forever

Photo by Martin Harmon

The Olympic Games are without a doubt the pinnacle of all sporting events. And for a few weeks in 1996, Georgia State helped the city of Atlanta be the hottest place in the world.

At that time Georgia State was nowhere near the university that it is now. For starters, Georgia State was a commuter school and didn’t have any campus housing. Furthermore, there was no football team or stadium to host large events.

In preparation for the Olympics, the university would have loved to host one of the more popular sports like volleyball because of the popularity it held in the country. But with such limited resources on campus, Georgia State was forced to host a smaller event in the GSU Sports Arena.

“Georgia State was really not on the list early on to host anything,” Martin Harmon, who was the school’s assistant athletic director for communications at the time, said.

Even so, hosting volleyball in the GSU Sports Arena wouldn’t have been a possibility due to Olympic regulations which required a certain roof height. The next best option for Georgia State was badminton. Yes, you read that right.

“Everyone focused on the high profile competitions and where they were going to take place,” Harmon said. “But also, they had to find venues for the other sports that weren’t quite as high profile in this country, so badminton was one of those.”

With Georgia State being in the heart of downtown and one of the largest universities in the state, it was seemingly a perfect fit.

Harmon, along with Peter O’Reilly, one of his graduate assistants at the time, oversaw the media operations among other things at the GSU Sports Arena, a task that both of them thoroughly enjoyed.

Harmon acted as a venue press chief, so he was tasked with ensuring the venue was appropriately set up to host each day’s events and ensuring various press-related matters.

Harmon and O’Reilly operated with 40 volunteers in the media center, which included both college students and adults who gave up everything to work the Olympics for a brief three weeks.

Due to the high stress and long hours associated with such an important job, both Harmon and O’Reilly found only one option to accommodate this: sleeping at the sports arena.

“There was really no time to leave. For two weeks you really couldn’t leave the venue, one of us always had to be available,” Harmon said. “We actually slept down in what was our office area at the time. We brought in stuff to where we could sleep there in the facility, so we never left. For two weeks we were there around the clock.”

While those two were running the operations, the actual game of badminton was becoming one of the big-ticket items in the city, believe it or not.

“Badminton is not well known in the United States, but it’s huge in Europe and Asia so those tickets became some of the prized tickets to any competition in the city because the number of people who were allowed in,” Danny Weipert, a staffer in Georgia State’s physical education department, said.

When the Olympic Committee took over the GSU Sports Arena, Weipert found a temporary job working with the housing department.

With such tight ticket sales and competitive matches, the atmosphere at Georgia State was unmatched.

“When it got halfway through the event and certainly through the semifinals and finals, it was as raucous a crowd as we’ve ever seen that arena,” O’Reilly said. “And it rivaled not only Georgia State basketball, but it could have been an ACC basketball game. It was that intense in our arena.”

One of the most significant issues that came up was the air conditioning system in the GSU Sports Arena.

“The air control had to be shut off during the competition because they could allow any gusts of air from up above to affect the flight of the birdie,” John Krafka, the public address announcer for the badminton events, said.

Krafka was an employee at Georgia State who played many roles during the Olympics, but his main gig was as the announcer for the badminton events.

“Probably one of the biggest thrills for me was being in the Sports Arena with a capacity of 5,000 people, and we were introducing the gold medal winners, and we had heads of state from several different countries that I had to introduce, and at one point for a solid minute, everyone in the arena was quiet—so quiet that you could hear a pin drop,” Krafka said.

During that time, Georgia State was just beginning to improve its housing department, and two buildings on the campus of Georgia Tech on North Avenue were a part of the Olympic Village. Afterward, the Olympic Village evolved into dorms for 2,000 Georgia State students. However, during the actual Olympic games, the two buildings housed close to 4,000 athletes.

In 2007, Georgia State sold the buildings to Georgia Tech, and the funds were used to help construct the University Commons.

At the time, the Olympic Village had just been built, so there were a few hiccups here and there. Weipert was in charge of handling issues that arose within and around the village, and sometimes addressing those issues was difficult due to the language barrier between him and the athletes.

The badminton events at Georgia State ran relatively smoothly, and there were no real problems that occurred during the games.

“The Olympics themselves went off without a hitch,” O’Reilly said. “So, did anything go wrong? No, I’d say Georgia State as a whole got an A+ for this event.”

While it will be a long time before Atlanta hosts another Olympics, if they ever were to, many people would volunteer to work the events again in a heartbeat, if given a chance.

“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, it’s part of what drew me to Atlanta,” O’Reilly said. “I moved to Atlanta to become a graduate assistant in the department, and when I did I knew the Olympics were coming, and I had to be a part of it somehow.”