Friday, August 5, 2016

The 20th Anniversary of the Days the Eyes of the World Turned to a Tiny Corner of East Tennessee

By Blake Fontenay

It started out as just an idea. A crazy idea, to some people's way of thinking.

It was the late 1980s and Atlanta was preparing a bid to become the host city for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. A group of kayakers from Atlanta that had been making regular weekend trips north to paddle along the Ocoee River in East Tennessee began to wonder: If Atlanta wins the bid, where would the Olympic whitewater canoe and kayak events be held? More to the point, could those events be held on the Ocoee?

American kayaker Richard Weiss, who finished sixth in the men’s division in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Image courtesy of Robert Harrison

The group's members decided the idea was worth pursuing. And almost immediately they encountered reluctance from a number of different quarters: The local businesses that rented rafting equipment along the river worried the disruption caused by the Olympics would cost them money. The United States Canoe and Kayak Team had been focused on its flatwater racing program and wasn't convinced the time was right to divert attention and resources into whitewater racing.

Residents in Polk County, the proposed site of the racing venue, were often divided in their views on various issues depending on which side of Big Frog Mountain they lived. The U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, two of the federal agencies whose support was needed for the project, had a rivalry of their own. And Tennessee state government officials weren't ready to commit funding to the project until they knew more about the potential economic benefits.

After Atlanta won the bid, its Olympic committee and the International Olympic Committee weren't overly supportive of the grassroots movement to hold the whitewater events on the Ocoee. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games was willing to include the whitewater events on the Ocoee, but only if someone else would pay the bills. The International Olympic Committee was either indifferent or outright opposed to the inclusion of the whitewater events, depending on which source one chose to believe.

On top of all that, the proposed site wasn't an ideal location. It was a two-hour drive from Atlanta, where most of the Olympic events were being held, in a forest accessible only by a winding two-lane highway. Cleveland, the nearest town of any size, was 30 miles away.

Olympic action on the Ocoee River course in 1996.
Image credit: United States Forest Service

Yet despite all the obstacles, the people who wanted the Ocoee River site kept pushing. They convinced local residents and businesses to get behind the effort. They convinced the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team the whitewater program would be beneficial. They convinced the federal agencies to put aside their differences long enough to bring the project to reality. And they convinced Tennessee state government officials that the potential economic benefits justified the funding necessary to develop the racing course.

Even with all the approvals in place, the project wasn't an easy one. Engineers had to build a challenging Olympic course along a section of the riverbed that was dry most of the year. They also had to install spectator seating, parking, infrastructure and landscaping. Work to get the venue ready continued into the final week before the Olympic events.

Workers at Lee University, the site of a makeshift Olympic village, had to scramble to get the campus ready for the 400 athletes, coaches and support personnel who stayed there during the three days of competition. Upgrades to Lee University's campus in Cleveland included new electrical wiring, plumbing and water heaters. Workers doubled the size of the school's cafeteria to help accommodate the voracious appetites of the high-energy athletes.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center, which remains open to this day.
Image credit: United States Forest Service

On the night before the start of the canoe and kayak events, a terrorist attack at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta cast a pall over the games. However, the events along the Ocoee went off without a hitch - and later earned national and international praise. Jeff Dimond, a spokesman for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, said the Ocoee events "sort of saved the day. Everybody in Atlanta was down from what had happened, and it was raining and there was a general gloom over the Olympics. Then this came up on TV, and we saw everyone having a good time, and it just picked everybody up."

American kayaker Dana Chladek, who won a silver medal in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games
Image courtesy of Robert Harrison

The Ocoee whitewater events were - and still are - the only Olympic events ever to be held in Tennessee. To read more about the 20th anniversary of this historic time, please check out our Tri-Star Chronicles story, photos and videos at

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

No comments:

Post a Comment