The U.S Domination in the 1996 Summer Olympics cannot be over emphasized as the Americans got on the victory wheels and basically dominating every aspect of the games. The games of the XXVI Olympiad held closing ceremonies on August 4, 1996, as the world celebrated athletic achievement and mourned senseless violence. The Summer Games, which were held in Atlanta, Georgia, over a 17-day period in late July and early August, produced courageous and record-setting performances by the athletes but were also struck by terrorism that killed one person and left more than 100 injured.
The 100th anniversary of the games was a groundbreaking Olympics in many ways. Several new sports, such as softball and women’s soccer, were introduced to acclaim, the most women athletes in Olympic history (nearly 3800) participated, a record number of countries took part (197) and won medals (79), and for the first time all of the states of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) competed as independent nations. The men’s marathon, traditionally the final event before the closing ceremonies, was won by South Africa’s Josia Thugwane, the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal. South Africa returned to Olympic competition in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, after a three-decade ban for its racist apartheid (separateness) policies.
Thugwane’s medal, which came in the closest finish—three seconds—in the history of the marathon, was the last of nearly 2000 awarded at the Summer Olympics. The United States, benefiting from the breakup of the USSR, easily took top honors in the unofficial country medal count with 101 medals, including 44 gold. Germany had the second-highest total, with 65 medals, 20 of them gold. Russia was right behind, with 63 overall and 26 gold. China (50/16) and Australia (41/9) rounded out the top five nations in the medal standings.
The most lasting memory of Atlanta’s Olympics, however, may be the minutes of panic and fear that followed a pipe-bomb explosion in Centennial Olympic Park in the early morning hours of July 27. The blast killed a 44-year-old woman and injured at least 111 others at the popular downtown park set up for Olympic-related concerts and entertainment. A Turkish cameraman also died of a heart attack while rushing to the scene. At the end of the games, investigators were still searching for those responsible for planting the crudely made bomb. The attack dampened the enthusiasm generated by Olympians such as sprinter Michael Johnson, who became the first man ever to win the 200-meter and 400-meter dashes; gymnast Kerri Strug and her U.S. teammates, who won their first team gold in women’s gymnastics; and Carl Lewis, who at the age of 35 won his fourth consecutive long-jump gold medal.
Most of the Olympic team sports concluded competition in August, including basketball, soccer, baseball, and volleyball. The so-called “Dream Team” representing United States men’s basketball easily captured the expected gold medal, drubbing Yugoslavia 95-69 in the final game. The U.S. team, comprised of professional National Basketball Association (NBA) stars for the second consecutive Olympics, was not as dominant as the 1992 version, but its limitless depth prevented any close contests. The U.S. men were led in part by center David Robinson, who had 28 points in the final game to become the all-time leading scorer in Olympic competition for the United States with 270 points, passing Michael Jordan.
The U.S. women’s basketball team matched its male counterpart in winning Olympic gold, crushing nemesis Brazil 111-87 in the finals. The 111 points set an Olympic record, as the U.S. women averaged over 100 points per game in Atlanta, often surpassing the point total of the U.S. men. The women were led by high-scoring center Lisa Leslie, who poured in 29 points in the finals. The gold medal was a vindicating achievement for the Americans and Coach Tara VanDerveer, after the United States settled for bronze in the 1992 Olympics and third at the 1994 World Championships. To prepare for the 1996 Olympics, the star-studded U.S. team was formed more than a year earlier and toured the world playing exhibitions. The gold-medal victory was their 60th win against no losses.
In men’s soccer, one of the biggest upsets of the Olympics occurred as unheralded Nigeria stunned favorites Brazil and Argentina to capture the gold medal. Using an attacking style of play characteristic of African soccer, Nigeria valiantly clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the last 15 minutes of the semifinal game against 1994 World Cup champion Brazil, sending the match into sudden-death overtime. Nwanko Kanu, who tied the game at 3-3 late in regulation, scored the game winner four minutes into overtime to complete the upset.
In the finals against world power Argentina, Nigeria again rallied, coming back twice from one-goal deficits to tie the game at 2-2 with about 15 minutes to play. With a few minutes remaining, Nigeria was awarded a free kick on one side of the penalty box. Argentina attempted to trap Nigeria offside, but there was no call on the play as Emmanuel Amunike easily converted the winning goal. For Africa, it was the first major championship ever in international soccer, often known as the world’s most popular sport. It was also Nigeria’s second-ever Olympic gold medal in any event, following by one day Chioma Ajunwa’s victory in the women’s long jump, the first African woman ever to win an Olympic field event.
In the first Olympic women’s soccer competition, the United States returned to world prominence with a 2-1 gold medal victory over China before more than 76,000 spectators—believed to be the largest crowd in history for a women’s sporting event. The U.S. team won the first women’s World Cup in 1991, defeating Norway in the final match, but had failed to defend the title in 1995 when they lost to the Norwegians in the semifinals and took third. The Americans got their revenge in the Olympic semifinals, dramatically edging Norway 2-1 in sudden-death overtime. After tying the game on a penalty kick by Michelle Akers late in the second half, forward Shannon MacMillan chipped the ball into the corner of the net ten minutes into overtime for her second game-winning goal of the Olympics. In the final, offensive star Tiffeny Milbrett broke a 1-1 tie in the second half to give the United States the winning margin.
Another first-time women’s Olympic sport was softball, which also featured a U.S.-China final. The United States prevailed in this showdown as well by a score of 3-1 to claim the gold medal. The powerful U.S. team lost just one game in the competition, a bizarre and dramatic contest against Australia in which a U.S. player lost a home run when she failed to touch home plate and dominant U.S. pitcher Lisa Fernandez lost her no-hitter when Australia’s Joanne Brown hit a two-run homer with two outs in the tenth inning to win it. They were the first runs Fernandez had surrendered in a game since joining the U.S. team in the fall of 1995. The Americans rebounded in the medal round to beat China twice, the second time behind 34-year-old shortstop Dot Richardson’s two-run home run for the gold.
In baseball, the Cuban team defended the gold medal it won in the first Olympic baseball competition in 1992. The talented Cubans outslugged Japan in the final, 13-9, launching eight home runs off Japanese pitchers to finish the 1996 Olympics undefeated. A disappointed U.S. squad settled for the bronze medal after losing to Japan in the semifinals, 11-2. In contrast to basketball’s Dream Team, the U.S. Olympic baseball squad was made up of amateur players, mostly college all-stars. However, baseball officials expect that professional players will be allowed to participate at the next Olympics, in Sydney, Australia, in the year 2000.
In volleyball, the Chinese women continued their silver parade as Cuba won the women’s gold medal with a 14-16, 15-12, 17-16, 15-6 win over China. The Cubans became only the second country to win consecutive gold medals in women’s Olympic volleyball, as they defended their 1992 title. On the men’s side, the Netherlands broke through to defeat Italy 15-12, 9-15, 16-14, 9-15, 17-15 and capture the gold medal. The Dutch team had lost in numerous final matches in the past to the Italians, including the 1994 World Championships.
In track and field events, American Dan O’Brien finally won the decathlon gold that many observers expected him to capture in 1992. O’Brien, a formidable Olympic contender who inexplicably missed making the U.S. team four years ago when he failed to post a score on the pole vault, comfortably clinched the gold medal in Atlanta with 8824 points, 118 ahead of Germany’s Frank Busemann. The three-time world champion became the first American to win the decathlon since Bruce Jenner in 1976.
In the women’s equivalent of the decathlon, the seven-event heptathlon, there was only disappointment for three-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Seeking a third straight gold medal in the event which earned her a reputation as the world’s top female athlete, Joyner-Kersee was forced to withdraw from the heptathlon in Atlanta after only one event with an injured hamstring muscle. Syria’s Ghada Shouaa replaced Joyner-Kersee in the gold medal spot on the podium. But in a display of courage and athleticism, Joyner-Kersee rallied a few days later for a come-from-behind bronze medal in her other Olympic event, the long jump. With her hamstring still sore, Joyner-Kersee’s final leap of 7 m (22 ft 11.5 in) elevated her from sixth place into third in what will most likely be the last Olympic event of her great career.
In the sprint relays, a controversy arose surrounding the composition of the defending champion 4 x 100-meter team from the United States. Shortly after Carl Lewis captured the gold medal in the long jump, pressure began to mount from various camps to name him to the relay team. Lewis, who earned two of his nine career Olympic gold medals anchoring the U.S. relay team, failed to make the squad in 1996 after he finished last in the 100-meter race at the U.S. Olympic trials. Lewis also failed to attend a relay practice camp as an alternate before the games. However, there was some popular support for giving Lewis a chance to win a record-tying tenth Olympic gold by naming him to the heavily favored U.S. team. Others argued that to do so would make a mockery of the selection process and be unfair to the other U.S. runners.
In the end, U.S. track officials decided against naming Lewis to the team. It would likely not have mattered, as the United States was soundly beaten by Canada in the relay finals and had to settle for the silver. Canada’s 0.36-second victory was sealed by 1996 Olympic 100-meters champion and world record holder Donovan Bailey, who crushed U.S. anchorman Dennis Mitchell and the rest of the field to mark the first time the U.S. relay team was beaten head-to-head in the event. The only other times the Americans failed to capture the Olympic gold medal in the 4 x 100 relays were a result of disqualification (1912, 1960, and 1988) or boycott (1980). In the women’s 4 x 100-meter relay, the United States won the gold with a 0.19-second victory over the Bahamas, its fourth consecutive Olympic gold in the event.
The biggest track star at the Olympics was undoubtedly U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, who became the first man ever to win both the 200-meter and 400-meter races in the same Olympics, setting a dramatic world record in the 200 meters in the process. Johnson’s bid for a third gold medal was thwarted when he had to give up his spot on the 4 x 400-meter relay team because of a slight muscle injury. The U.S. still captured the gold in the event, defeating Great Britain (silver) and Jamaica (bronze).
Winning the 200 and 400 meters at the Olympics is nothing new on the women’s side, as it was accomplished by U.S. sprinter Valerie Brisco-Hooks in 1984. This feat (and Johnson’s) was matched in Atlanta by Marie-José Pérec of France, who set an Olympic record in the 400 meters and then came from behind to take the gold in the 200 meters. The 28-year-old Pérec, who also medaled in the 400 meters at the 1992 Olympics, moved to Paris from the French islands of Guadeloupe to train when she was 16 years old.
Another difficult Olympic double was pulled off in women’s track by Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova, who won the gold medal in both the 800 and 1500 meters. The unheralded 28-year-old Masterkova, who took about three years off to have a baby before returning to full-time competition this year, defeated heavily favored Maria Mutola of Mozambique (who took the bronze) and world champion Ana Quirot of Cuba (silver) in the 800 meters before capturing the 1500 meters as well. To top off her double-gold performance, Masterkova set a new world record for the mile on August 14 at a post-Olympic meet in Zurich, Switzerland. Her time of 4 minutes 12.56 seconds at the Zurich Grand Prix meet shattered by more than three seconds the seven-year-old women’s record held by Paula Ivan of Romania. Incredibly, it was Masterkova’s first mile race of her career. The large number of medals won by the U.S during the 1996 summer Olympics clearly espoused the U.S domination in the games which clearly placed the U.S ahead of its contemporaries.