The Olympic whitewater races took place on the Ocoee River 25 years ago.
This is part one of a four-part series that looks back at that time. There are plenty of written accounts, but I want to share backstories from people who played integral roles.
In the late 1980s, Billy Payne, an Atlanta attorney and former University of Georgia football player, broached the idea for Atlanta to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. The idea quickly caught fire.
Since 1996 represented the 100th anniversary of the Olympics, Athens, Greece — location of the first Olympics — was expected to host the Centennial games. Undeterred, Atlanta mounted an impressive lobbying campaign.
When time came to submit bids to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Atlanta showed up with a splashy video production, promises of extensive media coverage and assurances that Atlanta would provide security.
IOC weighed all those factors, but Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, was the secret weapon. Young had previously served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as chief delegate to the United Nations, allowing him to make friends all over the world.
That experience proved useful as he lobbied African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries to gain support for Atlanta.
A 1990 “New Times” article quoted Jean-Claude Ganga, an IOC committee member from the Congo who was president of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa, as saying, ‘’Without Andy Young, Atlanta could not have made it.’’
Not every IOC member nation knew about Atlanta, but they all knew about Martin Luther King. And they knew Andrew Young.
The paddling community was thrilled, especially the Atlanta Whitewater Club. Joellen Dickey, a native of Athens, lived in Atlanta at the time. A whitewater enthusiast, she formed WIN (Whitewater in Ninety-Six) and worked with others in the paddling community to promote the Ocoee River as the 1996 venue for Olympic whitewater races.
There was a major hurdle. IOC had to approve whitewater races for the 1996 games. Whitewater races were part of the 1972 and 1992 Olympics, but showcasing whitewater a third time meant the event would be included in all future Olympics. That commitment made IOC nervous.
The paddlers’ persistence was important, but more had to happen. As the old railroad saying goes, “It takes money to ride the train.”
We can thank Hoyt Firestone for priming the pump to get the money flowing.
Hoyt was the Polk County executive at the time. He also served on the board of directors for Southeast Tennessee Development District (SETDD). At a SETDD planning retreat, each board member was asked to name a priority for their community.
Hoyt Firestone said, “I want Olympic whitewater races on the Ocoee River.” I understand there was stunned silence.
I talked to Hale Booth and Beth Jones a few weeks ago to make sure what I remembered hearing about that meeting was accurate. Hale was assistant executive director for SETDD then and attended the meeting. Beth Jones was Sen. Jim Sasser’s field representative at the time and she was also present.
According to Hale and Beth, when Hoyt put forth the most ambitious idea of the day, “you could have heard a pin drop.” In what might be considered divine intervention, Chattanooga attorney Whitney Durand was present too and he was intrigued with Hoyt’s bold proposal.
He mentioned that Charlie Battle, a member of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), was his college roommate and he offered to set up a meeting with ACOG to explore the possibility.
ACOG agreed to include the Ocoee event if IOC approved it, but made it clear that Atlanta would provide zero financial support. That meant the State of Tennessee would have to pony up. And Gov. Ned McWherter had concerns about the cost.
Sen. Sasser started working to push federal money toward the project. SETDD jumped in and secured a grant to pay for a feasibility study that demonstrated the positive economic impact an Olympic event would have on the entire region.
But, even a year after Atlanta’s selection, the IOC was still nervous about whitewater. Whitney Durand sent a memo to Gov. McWherter in 1991 stating that Juan Samaranche, chairman of the IOC, was opposed to including slalom in 1996.
“Samaranche is a politician,” Durand wrote. “He really wants ACOG to say ‘no’ to whitewater slalom but is unwilling to do so himself.”
At the time, I remember hearing about a Russian IOC member who kept voting against whitewater. For some reason, he was a “no-show” at a 1992 meeting when the rest of the committee voted yes.
Rumors circulated that the Russian died, but it was never confirmed. When speaking with Hale last week, he reminded me that the Soviet Union collapsed at the same time. That could explain the Russian’s absence at the critical meeting.
So, in December of 1992, the Ocoee River was finally chosen to host the 1996 Olympic whitewater races. Of course, there were a few things left to do, including build the world’s first ever race course on an actual riverbed, convince skeptics, create an organization to manage the event, raise millions of dollars, and — get it done in a little over three years.
In Part Two, I’ll share what I have learned about next steps, including how the race course was built — a monumental fete, to say the least.
Linda Caldwell is the former executive director of the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association. She has served on numerous regional, state, and national boards for organizations that focus on history, preservation, community arts, and rural economic development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org