Monday, July 19, 2010

When the Games Began

Magnet # 296:  Georgia Welcome Sign

Material:  Wood, Laminated Paper

Purchased By:  Me

Fourteen years ago on this very day, the 1996 Summer Olympic Games were holding their opening ceremonies in Atlanta, Georgia. The city had seemed like an unlikely choice to many, as Los Angeles had recently hosted the Summer Games, but it still managed to beat out rivals including Athens and Toronto to emerge victorious. Plenty of preparations were made for the event, including the creation of the Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, which is still there today. And when the Games finally began, there was some drama, most notably when a bomb went off in the park, killing one and injuring over 100 more. Atlanta also took some criticism for supposedly over-commercializing the games and including pickup trucks and cheerleaders in the opening ceremony. When Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee congratulated the city with a "well done" at the closing ceremony, calling the Games "most exceptional," he stunned some. It was the only time he ever broke with the tradition of calling the current Games the "best Olympics ever." Regardless, the state still takes a great deal of pride in hosting the Games that year, as evidenced by this magnet, an accurate replica of the actual welcome sign posted on I-85 at the Alabama border. Even though I didn't live here in Georgia at that time, I did live right next door in Alabama, where people were also pretty excited about the event. I didn't go over to see any of the competitions, but I did bring some of the younger kids I was taking care of out to a local exhibit set up by the Olympics to teach kids about the Games before they kicked off. We had a fun time there, and it was the first time I remember ever seeing anything official dealing with the Olympics in Montgomery. They even held preliminary soccer matchups in nearby Birmingham. I know I'm not much of a sports enthusiast, but I guess those Olympic Games are the ones I've felt the most connected to.

One of the more memorable features of the 1996 Summer Olympics was its mascot, Izzy. I still remember seeing the funny little blue guy all over the place back then. His full name was Whatizit (or What is It?) and it wasn't really much of anything. It was just a blue creature with big eyes and long limbs wearing high-top sneakers. Creating it was a significant departure from the traditional use of cute little animals or humans that are representative of their country, but it did mark the first time a mascot was created by computer. The character took a lot of criticism from the press, adults didn't care for it, but kids seemed to like Izzy somewhat. And with the next Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, the use of cute national animals returned when the characters were modeled after a platypus, an echidna, and a kookaburra. China really set the bar high with their mascots, the Fuwa, for the 2008 Beijing Olympics - they had five characters in all to stand for the five Olympic rings. Each also took on traditional Chinese features or those of the Olympics. They proved to be pretty popular, as they were quite cute, nicely designed, and even went on to star in a television series. But some conspiracy theorists claimed they were cursed and linked each one to regional unrest and misfortunes. Personally, I think they're adorable and have seen them in other magnet enthusiasts' online collections and wouldn't mind adding them to mine. But I think the 2012 London mascots are going to accomplish a feat I never though possible - make Izzy look good by comparison. At least he had two eyes - the pair of these ghastly creations only have one apiece. They're called Wenlock and Mandeville, after locations in England that have been important to the Olympics and Paralympics, but if I lived in either place, I'm not sure if I'd be all that flattered. These things look kind of like really ugly, yet shiny, aliens and their story is that they were formed from the final two droplets from the steel that was used to create the Olympic stadium. It's hard to believe that concepts using a teapot, pigeons, and even Big Ben with arms and legs were passed up in favor of this duo, but they will soon be merchandised on shirts, mugs, and even stuffed toys for kids. I certainly don't want a magnet of the two to post up here. Again, thanks London, for creating Olympic and Paralympic mascots so terrible that we here in Georgia can be less ashamed of Izzy.

To date, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta are the only cities in the United States that have hosted the Summer Olympic Games, not that other ones, such as New York City and Chicago, haven't tried. And we've also hosted Winter Olympic Games here, most recently at Salt Lake City, which occurred after the Atlanta games. But with the 2012 London games now 739 days away, I guess bids will be coming up for more future games. For now, the United States seems uninterested in bidding again, as they have claimed the International Olympic Committee has made it clear they don't want the games to be in our country. However, I imagine the Summer Games will return here again someday - even my beloved Dallas, Texas has expressed interest in hosting them. Until then, we'll have to make good with the memories of the follies and triumphs of Atlanta's 1996 Summer Games and the promise of the London games almost exactly two years away.


  1. Yes, from time to time we see in the Dallas Morning News talk of bringing the Olympics to Dallas. Just a dream...time will tell.