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Photo by and courtesy of Charlie McCullers.

Atlanta Remembers: The Atlanta Olympic Cultural Olympiad, a partnership between ArtsATL and WABE

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This story is part of WABE and ArtsATL’s Cultural Olympiad coverage. 


It’s been 20 years since the Olympics came to Atlanta.

From July 19 to August 4, 1996, all 197 nations of the International Olympic Committee participated in the Games of the XXVI Olympiad, throughout which 10,318 athletes competed.  

For the countless individuals who moved here during the games and afterward,  the Olympic ceremonies represent the pinnacle of athletic achievement. Still, some Atlantans reminisce on it as a  time of boundless growth and abundant energy within a city that strove to redefine itself. Monuments, facilities and artworks still stand tall on Atlanta’s skyline.

Much as change is afoot now, the Olympics ushered in a new era for Atlanta –– in cases for better and for worse –– and their mark has continued to shape our city in the two decades that have followed.

Over the course of July and August, ArtsATL is pleased to partner with 90.1 WABE to reflect on the way that the Olympic games shaped Atlanta culturally, with a deeper reflection on the Cultural Olympiad.

But before we dive in . . . what exactly is a cultural olympiad?


In the 1904 issue of Figaro, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Olympic Movement, stated that the new Olympic games would “celebrate humankind’s highest achievements in both art and sport.” Coubertin viewed arts and culture as a critical component of the rebirth of the Olympics. But how the arts have manifested as part of the Olympic games has fluctuated greatly since the rebirth of the Olympic games in 1896 and the first cultural olympiad that followed in Stockholm’s games of 1912.

In fact, through the 1948 Olympics, there were actual cultural competitions throughout the games. Artists from around the globe rallied to compete in the “Pentathlon of the Muses” which hosted contests in the fields of architecture, music, literature, painting and sculpture.

The sheer magnitude, growth and quality of the athletic competitions really obscured the cultural games. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around –– one can easily award a gold medal in a four by four relay because it’s a quantifiable result. A gold medal in sculpture? That’s subjective.

In 1949 the International Olympic Committee convened and eventually came up with a mandate for future bidding host cities: “The organizing committee will organize a demonstration or exhibition of Art . . .”

The first non-competitive Cultural Olympiad took place in Helsinki in 1952. Each Olympic city since has held a Cultural Olympiad, with each host city coming up with their own format and content. For example, Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980 presented only native artists. In 1988 Seoul featured traditional and modern Korean art forms, while Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles and Barcelona all went the international route.

Most Cultural Olympiad programs ran anywhere from four to ten weeks.


Photo by and courtesy of Charlie McCullers
Photo by and courtesy of Charlie McCullers

Atlanta’s cultural bid broke any precedent that had been set –– committing to the most expansive, in-depth, diverse Cultural Olympiad ever, proposed to take place over the course of  four years. Four years of arts, culture and entertainment programming leading up to the 1996 Centennial Olympic games, culminating in the Olympic Arts Festival, the largest Olympic cultural event to ever happen in conjunction with the modern Olympic games. Between June 1 and August 4, 1996, nearly 200 dance, theatrical and musical performances took place throughout the city. In addition to that, more than 20 different exhibitions were hosted, 17 public artworks erected and the “Southern Crossroads” art festival was presented.

The arts programming was an incredible success for Atlanta. In fact, it attracted the largest audience in history at the time for Olympic cultural events –– gathering more than 2.6 million people in total, and that was just at the Olympic Arts Festival.

Atlanta’s Cultural Olympiad was a major turning point for the modern American South.The Cultural Olympiad’s master plan, which was released in August 1993 by the Atlanta Olympic Committee, made it known that the cultural programming would have two central focuses: “Southern Connections” and “International Connections.”

It was the hope of the Atlanta Olympic Committee to “link the international artistic and cultural traditions of the Olympic Family with those of the South,” and marked the first opportunity for the region to internationally showcase the progress it had made since the civil rights era. The region had never seen anything like it, to date it remains the largest multidisciplinary arts festival to ever be held in the region, showcasing the talents of almost 100 performance and arts organizations from Atlanta and around the globe.

It also marked a change for the Olympics themselves. The 1996 cultural programming was the first to treat the Cultural Olympiad as part of the organizing committee’s responsibilities. For the first time, the ACOG provided areas and production resources and services to the Cultural Olympiad.


It’s our hope that by reflecting on the cultural renaissance that occurred as a result of the Olympic games we can remember, reflect and make more fully informed decisions as citizens of Atlanta as we enter into a similar era of growth and change.

Throughout the remainder of July and August, ArtsATL and WABE will take the opportunity to reflect on these themes. In the realm of Southern Identity, we’ll discuss everything from the July 22, 1996 cover art of The New Yorker to a deeper conversation with designer John Ryan, who had key contributions to the development of Izzy/Whatizit, the mascot of the 1996 games.

We’ll take a look at some of the key institutions that grew from the Olympics and the moments that they contained, including the formation of the Tabernacle. We’ll focus, too, on landmark performances such as performances of “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” the opening ceremonies, Fred Scott’s conducting of Gershwin’s piece “Of Thee I Sing,” and the 8 Nobel Laureates of Literature: An Olympic Gathering.

We’ll also host in-depth interviews with crucial leadership from the Olympic era and discuss how their involvement with cultural programming has shaped their careers, including talks with Leslie Gordon, who has gone on to become the Director of the Rialto Center for the Arts, WABE’s own Valerie Jackson and Lisa Cremin, the current director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund.

We look forward to sharing these stories with you in the weeks to come. Follow all of our stories in partnership with WABE here. Keep track of us on social media with #ATLCulturalOlympiad.