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Lake Lanier Olympic Park 1996 venue still used for original purpose
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Officials watch from the newly renovated tower and spectators watch from the stands in April during the U.S. National Team Trials at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park. - photo by Scott Rogers/The Times

HALL COUNTY -- Twenty years ago the Olympic Games came to Atlanta, with rowing and paddling events held in Gainesville on Lake Lanier. While the Olympic flame has been passed on, the Olympic spirit has not been lost in Gainesville.

The venue where the rowing and paddling events were held, now called Lake Lanier Olympic Park, recently completed $1.1 million in renovations. It’s still being used today — and is one of the only facilities built for the ‘96 Olympics that is still used the way it was originally purposed.

In May, the Pan American Championships were held at the park, a few weeks after the U.S. Canoe/Kayak National Team Trials. The venue will host the Dragon Boat Festival on Sept. 10, which is expected to draw 7,000 people, and the 2018 Dragon Boat World Championship will be held at the venue in two years.

Also on the calendar is the Rio on the Water 20th anniversary event Aug. 5 planned to commemorate the ’96 Olympics. It will feature Brazilian food, dancing and music. There will be a parade of volunteers who helped out with the Olympics.

“We’re really celebrating the fact that we’re the only venue from 1996 that’s still in use 20 years later,” said Morgan House, Olympic Park venue manager.

Those who were involved in bringing the Olympics to Gainesville planned a venue in the early 1990s that would withstand the years and continue to be used for its original purpose.

The story of how Lake Lanier Olympic Park came to be dates back more than 20 years. After Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Olympics on Sept. 18, 1990, planning began.

The rowing and paddling events were initially planned for Rockdale County. But according to Gainesville attorney Steve Gilliam, who served as vice chair of Gainesville Hall ’96 committee, when Rockdale County didn’t have water for the manmade lake it had planned, Olympic organizers began to look toward Stone Mountain. When it became clear that an island in the middle of the lake there would make a course impossible, more options were sought.

That’s when Gainesville/Hall ’96 came into play. The group was formed from the ’96 Community Roundtable, which worked to get Gainesville and Hall County involvement in the Olympics. The mission statement of the ’96 Roundtable, which was founded June 14, 1993, states: “The Mission of the ’96 Community Roundtable is to serve as a catalyst and to unify community efforts relative to participation in the 1996 Olympic Games and other events which will have a significant impact on our community before, during and after the 1996 Olympic Games.”

Gilliam, part of Gainesville/Hall ’96, said they wanted to make sure that when the venue was built, it would last.

“We wanted to maintain a long-time presence in the two sports ... and also to champion Gainesville and Hall County on an international stage, we wanted to shine to the world,” Gilliam said.

And shine Gainesville did. During the Games, NBC commentator Charlie Jones christened Gainesville the “hospitality capital of the world” as the community warmly welcomed the athletes and spectators to the lake.

“What I try to do is during each event that we have, make that recognition come true at every event,” House said.

He said he’s heard from many people around the globe over the years who have said how much they loved Gainesville.

House is a former athlete and has previously competed in more than 20 different countries over the world kayaking. He said the Lanier venue is one of the most fair in the world — and that’s one of the reasons people like to come back.

“Oftentimes you get a wind shadow where one lane will be affected by wind, whereas the others won’t be. It creates an unfair advantage,” he said. "Yet at the Lanier course, if there’s wind, everyone will experience the same advantage or disadvantage.

While the course is a draw to athletes for fast and fair races, its 20-year lifespan has been made possible by the people around Gainesville, House said.

“Without volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to operate,” he said.

The past 18 years, two clubs, the Lake Lanier Rowing Club and the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, have shared the venue, with assistance from the city and county for maintenance.

“The kayak and rowing clubs are 100 percent volunteer-based,” House said. “Without their support and their help, this really wouldn’t function.”

Twenty years ago, those volunteers made the Olympic Games possible.

“The amazing thing about the whole thing when we started looking for volunteers, they were coming out of the woodwork. We never lacked for volunteers,” said Mary Hart Wilheit, who was the executive director of Gainesville/Hall ’96 leading up to the Games.

Wilheit and Gilliam also said watching all of the local groups come together for the Olympics was gratifying. The Department of Natural Resources, the city of Gainesville, Hall County, the Army Corps of Engineers and local law enforcement officials were among the groups that needed to agree to contracts to make the Olympics possible in Hall County.

“We had to get all those folks involved, and they all got on the bandwagon. I mean, it was really neat,” Gilliam said.

Economically, the impact has also been a boom locally. House said in 2015, the venue brought in just under $7 million to the local economy. This year, with the new events added, that number is expected to be around $10 million.

Phase two of renovations to the park will include improvements to the park side.

Looking back, Gilliam said he’s still very proud of the venue, which has given the people in Gainesville and Hall County a unique opportunity to see world-class athletic events over the years.

“Again, I think we have a unique story to tell in the fact that we’re still the only operating venue that was designed to be for the sports,” Gilliam said, "and we got two sports, and both of them are continuing."