Olympics and Academia: A Special Combination

By Wayne Clough, President Georgia Institute of Technology

Almost a century ago, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, was asked why he restored the Olympic Games. His answer: “To ennoble and strengthen sports?and to enable them to better fulfill the educational role incumbent upon them in the world.”

When it comes to the participation of colleges and universities, the Atlanta Games fulfilled de Coubertin’s ideal more than any previous Olympics.

Never before in the history of the Olympics has higher education played such an integral role in the planning, construction, staging and outcome of the Games.

Although the hustle and bustle of preparing for the Olympics often obscured the extent of its connections to higher education, Atlanta and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) made a profound statement to the world in focusing the world’s attention on the integral place of higher education in Atlanta and in American life.

Although the 1996 Olympics were centered in Atlanta, institutions of higher education from around Georgia and the Southeast played a major role in helping athletes prepare for the Games.

For example, nine French sports teams trained at Auburn University. So too did teams from Finland, Japan and Ukraine. Belgian teams trained at the University of Alabama. In North Carolina, N.C. State hosted Norwegian athletes, while the University of North Carolina hosted the training of American track and field athletes. The University of Tennessee was the training venue for U.S. swimmers, and Russian teams trained at the University of South Carolina.

Here in Georgia, athletes from at least 16 countries prepared for the Olympics at 10 different colleges and universities.

In Milledgeville, Georgia College became a mini-United Nations as badminton teams from Canada, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Russia, Switzerland and the United States prepared for the Games. In nearby Marietta, distance runners from Australia, Finland and France trained at Life College.

As for the Games themselves, it is not too much to say that they could not take place without the active participation of the local academic community.

No fewer than six metro Atlanta colleges and universities?Clark Atlanta, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Morehouse, Morris Brown and the University of Georgia?were venues for 11 different sporting events. And Georgia Tech’s campus also served as the Olympic Village.

Higher education’s connection to the Olympic Games is more than just a matter of providing training facilities and athletic venues. The opportunity for students of all ages to be exposed to diverse cultures and outlooks from around the world will have a powerful impact.

Like institutions of higher education, the Olympic Games as envisioned by Coubertin provide an educational forum through which people can broaden their experience with and knowledge of other people and places.

The academic community is working to expand on this unique opportunity. Several colleges and universities are developing courses on the Olympics, including one project supported by the University System of Georgia that offered Olympics-related courses throughout the state via distance-learning technology.

These are noteworthy efforts, and their impact will be increased by the learning opportunities provided by the Olympics experience itself.

A second legacy the Games provided was the opportunity to showcase not only Atlanta, but also the campuses and creativity of the involved colleges and universities.

The international publicity that the area’s academic institutions received during the Games heightened worldwide knowledge of the quality and achievements of Atlanta’s academic community.

The Olympic legacy also included bricks and mortar. For example, at Georgia Tech we dedicated the new Georgia Tech Aquatic Center that was the site of four Olympic events. Alexander Memorial Coliseum was also “re-created” and was the venue for Olympic boxing.

Construction was completed on seven new residence halls that are now home to 2,700 Tech students after the Olympics. Living quarters are apartment-style, with a full kitchen, a living/study area, single-occupancy rooms and one bathroom shared by two students. Each room is connected to a high-speed computing and communications network.

With ACOG providing $27 million for the halls, Tech’s remaining debt on the halls is $93 million. This will be retired over 20 years through the fees charged to students for their rooms. Across the street from our campus another portion of the Olympic Village rises into the air over the downtown connector. These four Olympic housing units are now home to 2,000 Georgia State students after the 1996 Olympics.

Elsewhere in metro Atlanta’s academic community, Olympic construction occurred on many other campuses. Clark Atlanta received a new track and field stadium. Georgia State’s gymnasium was renovated. Morehouse built a new basketball facility. Morris Brown refurbished its football stadium for use as the field hockey venue. And the University of Georgia built a new gymnasium to be used for volleyball and rhythmic gymnastics. Clearly, the Atlanta Olympics provided a legacy of education, publicity and facilities to the Atlanta academic community.

As president of Georgia Tech, I would be remiss if I did not address my own institution’s other contributions to the Games. After having graduated from Georgia Tech 35 years ago, I returned to Atlanta in 1995 well aware that under my predecessor, Dr. John P. Crecine, Georgia Tech played a major role in attracting the Olympics to Atlanta by developing a stunning multimedia presentation. I also knew that Georgia Tech would be the site of the 1996 Olympic Village.

Even so, I was not fully aware of the extent of Georgia Tech’s involvement with the Games.

As the Olympics approached, Georgia Tech turned over most of its campus to ACOG not just for the Olympics, but for two full months beginning on June 15. We regained most of the campus on August 15, except for the northwest quadrant, which hosted the athletes and the Games of the 1996 Paralympics until August 27.

Since its research programs and sizable summer-teaching session make Georgia Tech a year-round operation, this seriously complicated our operations in the summer.

However, ACOG worked closely with Tech administrators, faculty and staff to minimize the problems.

Georgia Tech faculty and staff helped prepare for the Olympics in other ways as well. Tech engineers and computer experts devised methods to track and model the movements of Olympic athletes in tennis, gymnastics, softball, swimming, diving and equestrian to improve their performance.

Tech designers helped create the Olympic torch; and architects, designers and engineers educated at Georgia Tech designed and built the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, the Alexander Memorial Coliseum renovation, the Olympic Plaza, the Olympic Stadium and Park, the Stone Mountain Tennis Center, the Wolf Creek Shooting Complex, the Rowing & Canoeing at Lake Lanier, the Cycling Velodrome at Stone Mountain Park and the Woodruff Arts Center renovation.

And when Atlanta Ballet presented its performance during the Olympic Games, it was in collaboration with Georgia Tech’s DanceTechnology Project.

After the Olympics, Georgia Tech and its fellow members of the higher-education community returned to our principal job of educating young people. This constant has not and will not change. But we were not the same after 1996.

In keeping with de Coubertin’s ideal, because of their ties to the Atlanta Olympic Games, higher-education institutions will be better prepared to enter the next century and to serve the people of Georgia and the nation, and the Olympics will be better off as well.