Note: This was actually intended as an intro for an article (LINK HERE) about the bizarre backstory to Atlanta winning the bid to host the 1996 Olympics, and how close it came to going to Greece instead.
If you are a gymnastics junkie then you almost certainly know the story. The Magnificent Seven, the famed Kerri Strug vault, and an Olympics that helped propel American gymnastics into the dynasty that it is today. But the Atlanta Olympics did more than help the Americans win a gold medal with the assistance of home field advantage that it otherwise might not have won.
The 1996 Olympics came at a critical time in gymnastics history when Eastern Europe was witnessing a mass migration of its top coaches and former gymnasts to Western countries. Many of them chose the foreign city they were most familiar with, the city they remembered from their Olympic days. Some making the move right after the Olympics ended, others waiting decades before they did the same. Just ask Lilia Podkopayeva:
“Atlanta has always had a special place in my heart since 1996,” said Podkopayeva. “I have very fond memories of the city, and I’m happy to be living here and working at the MJCCA and Perimeter Gymnastics.”
It’s no surprise that Podkopayeva ended up in Georgia. Lilia is best known for being the top ranked gymnast at the 1996 Olympics, but her career was also memorable for her friendship with Elena Piskun. Piskun herself also ended up in the Atlanta area in a suburb that is a half hour drive from the city center. Piskun almost certainly helped to encourage her longtime Ukrainian friend to come to Georgia.
Elena Piskun’s most famous contribution to the sport was the pair of gold medals she won at the world championships on two different apparatuses. But she also had one lesser known contribution to the sport, this time as a coach. The Gymternet loves Ragan Smith and is thrilled to see her putting up high marks at Oklahoma. But before Ragan was at Oklahoma she was competing for Kim Zmeskal at Texas Dreams. But Ragan was not originally from Texas. Ragan Smith is actually from Georgia and it was with the help of Elena Piskun that she first became a standout prospect.
The legacy of the Atlanta Olympics is wide and far reaching. It gave us Dominique Moceanu and her famed “Devil Went Down to Georgia” routine and perhaps even Ragan Smith. The tip of a Butterfly Effect where if Atlanta never won the right to host, we may be talking about a sport with a very different history.
We may be talking about the famed career of Svetlana Khorkina which started out with her leading Russia to victory in Athens at the 1996 Olympics and would later go on to be the first gymnast since Caslavska to win back to back Olympic All-Around titles. But in that situation we also get famed UCLA Bruin Kerri Strug.
Not to take away from the accomplishments of the Magnificent Seven. Perhaps they do pull off the win on European soil, ending the conversation that such a win only came because of home field advantage. But there are also the more sinister things at play as well.
The 1996 Olympics was one of the most pivotal moments in gymnastics history. It changed gymnastics history, and more specifically American gymnastics history for the better, and also for the worst. It was a signature win for Bela Karolyi that came in between a disappointing 1992 Olympics where the United States finished third, and would be followed by more disappointment at the 2000 Olympics. Bela didn’t just win at the 1996 Olympics, but by carrying Kerri Strug he had created an invaluable photo opportunity to enhance his fame, prestige, and perception. Without the 1996 Olympics does the Karolyi dynasty slowly fade away by the early 2000s?
But Bela wasn’t the only person empowered at the 1996 Olympics. There was also Larry Nassar. His role in being part of the highlight reel in one of the most famous moments in Olympic history is key to understanding who Larry Nassar was. It helped make him famous within the gymnastics and medical community. It also gave him automatic credibility. This was especially true with strangers as those who weren’t initially familiar with Nassar were certainly familiar with that famous Olympic moment. In any other sport the team doctor is usually an unknown and obscure figure. In gymnastics Nassar had made himself into a well known figure, if not a mini-celebrity within the sport before his downfall. An occurrence that was undoubtedly linked to his role in the Kerri Strug vault.
For better and for worse the 1996 Olympics changed the sport of gymnastics. Very few Olympics were so pivotal to the history of women’s gymnastics than 1996. An iconic American win on American soil produced a series of events that would have never have been replicated if the competition had occurred on European soil. The Magnificent Seven winning in Athens wouldn’t have come with quite the same thunderous roar even if every one of the events that had occurred in Atlanta had also occurred in Athens.
And it all happened because of a fluke bidding process in 1990 that produced an unlikely decision giving the games to Atlanta. Setting the stage for one of the most memorable Olympic moments that would impact the future of the sport in more ways than one.