20th Olympic anniversary to be celebrated with ‘a big party’

In 1996, something exciting happened at Lake Lanier, Atlanta, Athens and other places in Georgia: The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. With the 20th anniversary of that event coming up, and the games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, plans are for a big celebration at Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
William Morgan House Jr., 29, champion canoe/kayaker and venue manager at Lake Lanier Olympic Park, spoke Thursday to the Rotary Club of Habersham County about the venue and its economic impact on the entire Northeast Georgia area.
From 1993-95, the Gainesville Hall ’96 board worked to bring the Olympics to Gainesville, House told Rotary members. That board still exists, and one of its biggest projects has been to revamp the Olympic Venue.
At about 8 years old, House “got really inspired” when it was clear Olympic boating events would be held at Lake Lanier. House’s “very first coach” in canoe/kayaking was Richard Hagler. Hagler lives in Hall County, but owns a farm in North Habersham County, and he brought BBI Spreaders to Cornelia.
Boating sports can be life-changing for youth and adults, House, Hagler and Habersham County Manager Phil Sutton attested.
“The programs at Lake Lanier change lives,” House said. “They changed mine dramatically. I had to go to (kayaking) practice before school and after school, and practice Saturday morning. So this kept me out of trouble. I got the experience in rowing, made a lot of friends, and met my wife.”
Hagler and his wife, Connie, were founding members of the Lanier Kayak Club back in the early 1990s. Hagler agreed canoe/kayaking helped keep his children out of trouble.
“We heard they were starting a canoe/kayak club, so we joined it,” Haglar told The Northeast Georgian. Since they were whitewater paddlers, Hagler said he and his wife “didn’t know anything about flatwater” paddling, so they were helped by Steve Kelly, the manager for canoe/kayaking for ACOG (Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games).
Hagler said preparing for the Olympics had adults and children, including his own three children and House, excited.
“We had some boats that were big and wide and plastic, so we had parents put together teams of these kids,” he said. “We started having races, and Morgan (House) was about 8 years old. He saw us out there, and he wanted to sign up. That was a little young for what we’d targeted. Morgan showed up and, being a very adventurous little boy, he wanted to learn.”
In about 1995, Hagler said, “Athletes would show up from time to time to spend a week of training and getting acclimated. They were from all over the world. We saw more and more elite-level athletes. The kids spent the summer in these wide boats you can’t turn over, and they decided they wanted to be Olympians.”
Hagler said the canoe/kayak club began to raise money, and, “We turned the little canoe club into a real organization. The first $10,000 came from the Gainesville Rotary Club, and we kept raising money and growing the program.”
Similarly, Sutton, who had never rowed before, became interested in the sport when the Olympics were coming to Northeast Georgia. He was so interested, he became a founding member of the Lake Lanier Rowing Club, along with “many other people.” He said rowing at Lake Lanier was “started pretty much from scratch,” specifically to bring the Olympics to the area. Those events in the 1990s set off a lifetime hobby of rowing for fitness, Sutton said. “It’s a pretty demanding sport at a high level. It’s not tough to get into casually, but for high level rowers, it’s considered one of the most demanding sports in the Olympics.”
Sutton still participates in weekly club meets at the Olympic facility, and “might row in any one” of various boats, “depending on who shows up.”
In addition to being in the canoe/kayak club, the Haglers also served as volunteers during the 1996 Olympics. Richard Hagler worked at the start line, supervising about 12 children who worked as boat holders.
“They were on a little platform in the middle of the lake at the start,” he said. “They would hold the stern of the kayak in place until they fired the shot and they’d take off.”
Though he didn’t volunteer at the Olympics, Sutton said, as Athens-Clarke County’s assistant manager, he participated in preparation, such as security, parking management and traffic control for Athens, which had several Olympic events.
In addition to leaving an Olympic facility, a legacy of the Olympics at Lake Lanier was having local individuals who were trained in how to officiate a world-class regatta, Hagler said.
“They helped us learn how to coach and officiate the sport,” he said. “All we had to do was go raise money, which wasn’t very difficult at all. Everybody wants to donate for kids. The reason we were so enthralled with it was, as parents, it allowed us to be involved in something the kids had passion about.”
Hagler agreed with House that a sport such as boating keeps children out of trouble, because of all the practice required.
Lake Lanier Olympic Park continues to have an economic impact on the area, House told Rotary members. Last year, the venue had an impact of $6.2 million in Gainesville/Hall County, and this year’s expected economic impact is almost $10 million. “To me that’s huge numbers, coming from a place people don’t even realize is there sometimes,” House said.
In May, the venue hosted the canoe/kayak Pan American championships for the first time in its history, with 13 countries represented. Those games are the continental qualifier for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. This means, “If you’re a kayaker in the Western Hemisphere, and you wanted to go to Rio this year, you absolutely had to come to Gainesville, first,” House said.
While most Olympic venues are abandoned and neglected after the Olympics have moved on, the Lake Lanier facility “is the only one still in operation for its intended purpose,” he said. “Most other venues, even around the world, either get demolished, repurposed or abandoned.”
Sutton has been on the Gainesville Hall ’96 board since about 2000 and is now vice chairman. In August this year, the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Olympics, there will be a great celebration at the Lake Lanier Olympic site. During the party, the plan is to show the Rio de Janeiro Olympic opening ceremonies while the celebration is going on, Sutton said.
“The idea is to bring back [ACOG director] Billy Payne, [former Atlanta Mayor] Andrew Young, and to try to get back a lot of people who were involved in the Olympics themselves,” he said. “They’re expecting the Men’s Four rowing team from the Olympics, who won the gold medal. It’ll be a huge event.”
The park’s economic impact in Habersham County is unknown, but Sutton said events held at the facility bring people to fill the hotels, even in Cornelia, which is about 30 minutes away.
“That’s another benefit of SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax),” Hagler said. “You’ve got this big engine down there, attracting people. They come through here, spend the dollars and help pay taxes.”
More information about Lake Lanier Olympic Park can be found at lakelanierolympicvenue.org.

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