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Remembering the Olympic Dream - Part II
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The Grand Prix Arena under construction - photo by Courtesy of the City of Conyers

Remembering the Olympic Dream - Part I (Aug. 6, 2011)


>>Click here for video extras from
- Mayor Charles Walker
- Mayor Randy Mills
- County Chief of Staff Greg Pridgeon
- City Manager and COO Tony Lucas and David Spann

as they talk about their memories of 1996 Olympics

The city had won the bid and signed on the dotted line, but the1996 Summer Olympic equestrian, mountain biking, and pentathalon events coming to Conyers were far from a done deal.


Unexpected bumps in the road

To be ready for the games, Conyers had to build what amounted to another small city on raw land. Roads, sewer lines, water lines, power lines had to be installed. Georgia Department of Transportation built the 2.5 mile spine road, or Centennial Olympic Parkway, and widened Ga. Highway 138 in anticipation of the crowds. The city was also building a golf course and the Keswick Village apartment complex was built by a private developer, with the agreement that the city could use the apartments for corporate sponsors during the games.

In the three years leading up to the Olympics, Horse Park business dominated the city council’s agenda. Conyers took out a $13 million bank note, and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games invested about $30 million into the venue. The goal was to have the park built by spring of 1995.

But no construction project is complete without its hiccups. "There were any number of things you would never have imagined sitting in Conyers," said Roland Vaughn, who was city manager at the time.

Among the things that popped up to shut down construction was an endangered plant species called the snorkle wort discovered at the Horse Park. Also, many artifacts were discovered as construction crews dug into the earth, including the bones of a child buried in a family plot a century ago.

"You had to have the forensic folks come out, quadrant it off," which shut down construction, said Mayor Randy Mills, who was a city councilman at the time. For the artifacts, "Archeologists come in, if they have any historical significance. And these did. You could fill up a 15,000 square foot building with artifacts. That’s everything from arrowheads to pottery. You had to quadrant that off," said Mills.

But eventually, the park neared completion. In the fall of 1995, the park successfully hosted the Atlanta Classic as a dry run.

Just as everything seemed to be chugging along, the mayor and council received word in October 1995 of another problem, unrelated to construction.

Mills said, "We get a note from (then Agriculture Commissioner) Tommy Irvin stating that piroplasmosis has been found in Georgia. This might cause the equestrian event to be moved from the present site. Moved."

Piroplasmosis, a blood-borne horse disease spread by ticks and fleas, had been considered eradicated from the United States and horses testing positive for the disease were generally not allowed in the country.

"We’re going gangbusters getting this thing finished up. Then we find out we might not even have it. What are we going to do now?" said Mills.

For the next two months, the city leadership held emergency consultations with experts, stayed up in late night executive sessions, and even flew to Europe to meet with European Union trade officials. All this was under the tightest of wraps as they tried to figure out how to keep the equestrian games in Conyers.

"Tommy Irwin’s office, state, federal, Food and Drug, and all the other players, were trying to get us cleared," Mills said.

The park ended up building a quarantine barn. All horses were tested as they came in. Horses that tested positive were only allowed to compete in arena events and away from wooded areas where there might be ticks.


Let the Games begin

By the time the Games arrived, the community was swept up in the excitement and eager to participate in whatever way they could.

Thousands waited up until the wee hours of the morning and lined the streets in Olde Town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Olympic torch as it came through Conyers, carried by runners such as Ethyl Boyle, who currently chairs the Hospital Authority Board.

Most participants described the two weeks of the Olympics as a whirlwind, exciting time.

When the Games began, Vaughn said, "It was somewhat emotional to drive into the Georgia International Horse Park and see the stadium and the stands absolutely full. And to see all the pageantry. It was like ‘OK, it’s all come to life.’ Everything we worked on for five years. It had become reality."

Tourism Manager Harriett Gattis called it a "magical time" and a "baptism by fire" for the new Welcome Center, then located at the base of the Parker Road bridge, which opened in July 1996.

"I’ll never forget," she said,"It was a Saturday morning, I closed my eyes and I could hear five different languages being spoken in the Welcome Center… in Conyers. This was just unheard of."

In those first two months, the Welcome Center saw more than 9,000 visitors from at least 10 different countries - about the same number it sees in an average year. Gattis estimated the park saw about 600,000 visitors during that time.

Staffers were up from dawn until late at night, and sleep became an optional commodity. "You were running on a lot of adrenaline," said Vaughn.

Legions of volunteers helped in big ways and little, from parking attendants to those working in the Welcome Center. Some took time off of work, and some companies allowed their employees to have flexible hours in order to volunteer.

Traffic, which residents had feared for months, ended up not much of a problem.

"Traffic was the smoothest thing," said current Chief Operating Officer David Spann. "They had scared everybody so bad." Many local residents either changed their driving patterns, telecommuted, and some fled town for two weeks.

The park turned over more than 30,000 spectators twice a day, and everyone was shuttled in from the parking area on Ga. Highway 138, where restaurants and offices now exist.

Royalty were in regular attendance at the equestrian competitions, along with celebrities such as actress Bo Derek.

The weather presented challenges as crowds coped with the stifling Georgia summer heat.

Initially, there were many heat-related medical calls at the GIHP - more than 100 on the first day of competition and 250 on the second day.

City Manager Tony Lucas, who was then Police Chief, said, "People (were) just falling out. A lot of the Europeans, they weren’t used to this heat, this humidity."

Thunderstorms - and the metal bleachers where visitors sat - also presented significant risks. One time the entire 30,000-plus venue had to be evacuated as a fierce thunderstorm rolled through.




Security was on the forefront of the minds of planners going into the Olympics. In April of 1995 the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. Ironically, that very day, the agencies involved in Olympic security and the FBI had scheduled an exercise of a bombing and hostage scenario in Atlanta.

Lucas, who was then Chief of Police, remembered the immense amount of planning, starting in 1991.

"That was a bit insane over all those years. There were volumes and volumes of these plans laid out. But when it came to the last two weeks, you might as well have thrown it all away. You had to redo it," said Lucas.

For one thing, the 400-plus personnel a day support Conyers had been promised by the Olympic security committee never materialized.

"We didn’t get a tenth of that and didn’t know it until the day before that they weren’t going to provide those to us," said Lucas.

David Spann, current Chief Operating Officer, was in charge of security at the Horse Park during for the Olympics. "At the last moment, we were forced to say, ‘OK, let’s draw back and retreat and consider what are our most important assets,’" Spann said.

The venue was the largest in size and the second highest in attendance, with events running 16 out of the 17 days of competition. It was also a place visited by many bluebloods and royals who followed equestrian sports.

Initially there was a struggle about who would be running the show at the GIHP - the Olympic security personnel or Conyers. But by day three, Conyers was calling the shots.

"We were sort of different because we were out here to ourselves," said Lucas. "We didn’t get the scrutiny like downtown. But we realized we were going to have to take care of our own."

Spann said, "We made it clear too, when this is all said and done, you’re going on to your next gig in another town or another country. We’re going to live here. If something bad happens, we’re going to be held accountable for it and blamed for it."

Conyers did receive help from 400 different law enforcement agencies across the country. The Drug Enforcement Agency and the Maryland State Police also lent significant manpower, in part because of personal relationships Vaughn had at the DEA and Lucas had at the Maryland State Police

And the DEA brought resources with them, such as a helicopter and bomb sniffing dogs.

"We didn’t tell Atlanta because we were pretty happy about what we were getting," said Lucas.

Security dictated the pace of events at the GIHP. "Everything operated around security," said Spann. "How the mail was brought in, how the equipment was brought in, how the horses were brought in. Everything rotated around what security was able to do."

Spann said, "The competition people would always try to say competition is first. If you don’t have competition, you have nothing else. We were the opposite. Sorry, I know it’s important to you to have a crowd, but it’s more important no one’s safety is at risk here."

And then the bombing happened downtown on July 27, 1996.

"That morning when they had the bombing, I felt like somebody had ripped my heart out," said Harriet Gattis. "We were so into the excitement of it, and then to have something like that happen."

"The show went on," she added. "Atlanta didn’t let that defeat them in any way."

Spann remembered waking up to a pager call around 1 a.m. He immediately began thinking of what to do differently that day.

"It mostly changed things from the perspective of the spectators," he said. "They had to then see you. What we did start doing was running the bomb dogs through the arena where the people were so they got a sense of security. We were already doing that. But it was more from the aspect we had to provide that appearance that we were more Johnny-on-the-spot."

It was a relief when the Olympic games and the Paralympic games closed said Lucas.

"I was just tight the whole time, just hoping we could get through it without any real incidents," Lucas said. "And we did, because of all the good work everyone did."

Spann said, "It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, without a doubt, but it was the most gratifying.

"At the end, when everything went well and it was over, it was almost like a huge emotional letdown. You had worked at such a high intensity for so long and done so much to plan for it and to operate it. And then boom; when it was all over, it was like, ‘What do I do now? What can I do now to top this?’"



The legacy of the Games

Even before the city decided to bid for the equestrian events, discussion focused on the future of the park after the Olympics.

Mills said, "Is there an endgame? Can you get at the end of two weeks and make it a cottage industry? That discussion was going on in 1992, 1993," said Mills. "You’re doing all this to plan for the day after the Olympics pick up and move. That’s the way we saw it. That’s probably why we are one of the only Olympic venues that’s still operating with what the intent was when we first opened the park."

Mills is also proud that by the time the games finished the park was operating in the black, with no debt thanks in part to corporate sponsorship the city pursued separate from the official Olympic partners.

Today, the GIHP still operates as an equestrian event venue and hosts a variety of other events, from rodeos to the Cherry Blossom Festival.

"I have to pinch myself to say I cannot believe we have this here in Conyers, Georgia," said Mills.

He credits the leadership, energy, and vision of former Mayor Charles Walker and former City Manager Roland Vaughn for making it possible. "The stars were aligned… The players were in the right place at the right time to pull this off."

Law enforcement also benefited from security planning and lessons from the Olympics, said Lucas. Disaster plans and protocol created for the Olympics were used in the 2004 Bio-Lab fire and other events, he said.

The GIHP helped kick-start Conyers’ focus on tourism as a driver of economic development, along with transportation-distribution, manufacturing, and retail.

Gattis said, "I take with great pleasure going around the state and I’ve had so many communities envious of what Conyers had done: stepped up and taken a chance. We had the Horse Park to begin the promotion of tourism. Up until that time, the east side of Atlanta was the best kept secret."

Matt Dixon, who spearheaded the campaign to bring the Games to Conyers, said, "I think if you look at it today, the things we tried to get people to look at are true today. The Horse Park is a viable asset. There is no way our community could have invested the kind of money the Olympic Committee was willing to invest."

Mills agreed. "It is amazing this small community was able to pull this thing off, and methodically continued to build upon that infrastructure that was laid in 1994 and 1995."

Along with the Park, another important legacy of the Olympics is the pride Conyers found in pulling together as a community.

"It galvanized this community in a way I have not seen since then," said Mills.

"We proved ourselves, I think," said Gattis. "We showed everyone we can handle even the largest sporting event in the world. It was a collaborative effort. Everybody working together for the common cause."