LaGRANGE, Ga. (WRBL) – About 25 years ago, Atlanta won the bid to be the host city for the 1996 summer Olympics. About an hour southwest of Atlanta, LaGrange served as a home to many athletes for weeks leading up to the athletic festival.
Chris Joseph, a former LaGrange mayor and torchbearer for the ’96 Olympics, created the “I Train in LaGrange” program and spent about five years planning the accommodations for the athletes. He looks back and describes it as an electric time where the city was filled with excitement.
“I was mayor at the time and wanted to get LaGrange as involved as we could with the Olympics with LaGrange being so close to Atlanta,” said Joseph.
Joseph and his wife Emily, who was also a torchbearer, joined the South African team for their travels and welcomed them to Georgia.
According to an article published by The Atlanta Journal, the teams that practiced and lived in LaGrange included South Africa, Brazil, Mauritius, Mozambique, Netherlands, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Surinam, Swaziland and Tunisia.
The athletes that were training in LaGrange used popular landmarks like West Point Lake, Granger Park and Callaway Stadium. The sports practiced within the city were basketball, boxing, track and field and racewalking. There were also basketball and softball exhibitions held at LaGrange College. The college also provided educational opportunities, dormitories and cafeterias for the athletes visiting.
Joseph said locals in LaGrange held parties for the athletes and were overall very excited to host players from all over the world.
“People immediately jumped on board and were thrilled to have all of this excitement here. We had street parties where the whole community was involved. Closed off the streets and the athletes came down on the square on Main Street. We had food vendors and people were everywhere. I mean, it was a tremendous opportunity to meet the athletes and for the people to get involved,” said Joseph.
Joseph remembers some of his favorite parts as seeing the community coming together and flying to South Africa to fly back with the South African team.
Lewis Powell IIII, a research archivist at the Troup County Historical Society and archives, is a LaGrange native and was a student at LaGrange High School when the athletes began to train for the Olympics in the city. He recalls seeing athletes training around the city and attending class with the athletes studying in LaGrange.
The city also began the Adopt-an-Athlete program where various families in LaGrange adopted athletes from the different countries and introduced them to American family life. Similar to Joseph, Powell said the community really came together to welcome all the athletes and people opened their hearts and homes.
“That contributed to this huge amount of energy that was generated by this whole program. I do know that as a student, I can think that there was quite a bit of civic pride that we were able to exhibit by bringing these athletes here and by being one of the few cities in Georgia that really, very actively sponsored this huge training program,” said Powell.
Powell said he thinks the city is still feeling the effects of all the revenue the Olympic athletes brought.
“I think the value of doing it was tremendous, I would hope we would even be able to do it bigger and better than we did 25 years ago, now. I think the community received it as well as I received it and I think it was very worthwhile, very worthwhile,” said Joseph.