Don Rooney, director of exhibitions for the Atlanta History Center, displays some of the items in the Olympics collection.
Don Rooney, director of exhibitions for the Atlanta History Center, displays some of the items in the Olympics collection.

Sada Jacobson Baby sort of remembers the Atlanta Olympics.

“I definitely remember watching it on TV,” the Buckhead woman said, “and I remember it was a big deal.”

She was just 13 in 1996, but Atlanta’s Olympic Games turned out to be a big deal, indeed, both for her and for metro Atlanta.

Baby’s family lived in Dunwoody when the Olympics came to Atlanta. Her father had been a successful fencer in college, she said, and his interest in the sport was rekindled when his former coach visited during the 1996 competitions. Soon, fencing was a family affair. She, her parents and her sisters all took up the sport.

“Looking back at it now, it’s kind of interesting,” she said. “I remember watching it in ’96 and thinking, ‘Those athletes are amazing. I’ll never be able to do something like that.’ … I had no idea that eight years later, I’d be competing in the Olympics.”

And winning. She took home a silver medal from the 2008 games in Beijing and a bronze medal from the 2004 games in Athens.

On Aug. 11, Baby and Olympic athlete Kimberly Batten, who won a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles in the 1996 Games, will appear at the Atlanta History Center to talk about their experiences. Their talks are part of a special day of Olympics-themed events timed to coincide with the 2012 Olympic Games in London, which conclude Aug. 12.

Go for the Gold: The Olympic Games

What: Presentations by former Olympic athletes Kimberly Batten and Sada Jacobson Baby; fencing and judo exhibitions; guided tours of the center’s exhibition of artifacts from the 1996 Atlanta Games; kid-friendly crafts and games.

When: Aug.11, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: The Atlanta History Center

Cost: Included in the cost of admission to the center. Admission to the center is $16.50 for adults, $13 for seniors and students, $11 for children age 4 to 12.

The program also will feature demonstrations of fencing and judo, crafts and other activities for kids, pin displays (expected to include new, hot-off-the-trading-block pins from London) and special guided tours of the history center’s permanent exhibit about the 1996 Olympics.

“For us, it’s really important that people understand the importance of having the Games here in 1996,” said Kate Whitman, vice president of public programs for the center. “I think it really elevated our city to make it an international city.”

For 17 days in 1996, the world’s attention focused on Atlanta. People from all over the world came here. Others saw Atlanta on TV. The attention changed the city, say Whitman and Don Rooney, director of exhibitions for the history center.

“It was a big deal for Atlanta,” Rooney said. “What started as a volunteer effort grew into a quest and a long-shot and a victory for the city. It put Atlanta on the world stage. I would say it was a big deal in terms of infrastructure – look at the airport and what happened in preparation for ‘96, look at Olympic housing — and it was a big deal for the psyche of the city, for rallying together and working for a common cause.”

An Olympic medal in the Atlanta History Center’s collection.

And the history center’s exhibit tries to capture everything about the Atlanta Games. It includes displays on sports, such as sprinter Michael Johnson’s colorful shoes; the Olympic torch relay, with a torch from every Olympics since the Berlin Games in 1936; and even a discussion of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

The exhibit, which includes about 400 items, is built around the collection of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, which organized and staged the Olympics. ACOG went from an idea to a $1.7 billion business, “a Fortune 500 company that goes away,” Rooney said. When it closed, it left 6,000 objects to the history center.

Most of those items are stored away in a locked room in the center’s basement. The storage area includes Olympic neckties, giant puppets, Olympic medals, thousands of pins, a stuffed blue Olympic mascot “Whatizit” as big as a grown-up, an Olympic teething ring and even a commemorative Big Mac box.

And if the entrance hall to the exhibit seems a little extra bouncy, it’s because the hardwood flooring came from the court used for the men’s basketball games during the 1996 Olympics.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.