Once an Olympic year has ended, most of the athletes move off of my radar. Within the next four years some of my favorites always retire. Others morph, within the span of 3 or 4 Olympic cycles, from teenage wunderkinds to competitors in their prime to the aging stalwarts of their field. I’m almost 30, so this year I am watching my dewy-faced peers from 2004 become respected veterans contemplating retirement.
Nothing highlights this passage of time more than the 1996 Olympic games. We have images burned into our memories of tiny teenage gymnasts accepting their gold medals, and it’s hard to fathom that they are now married mothers on the cusp of middle age. Tennis scamp Andre Agassi is 46. Michael Johnson works for Arsenal – imagine that.
I think we’re all a little stunned that the last summer Olympics to be hosted in the U.S. happened a full twenty years ago. Because of that, Where Are They Now features for the top athletes of the Atlanta games have abounded. I still had some unanswered questions, though: remember Whatizit? Where’d they put the cauldron? And does Bela Karolyi still think I can do it? Let’s investigate:
Izzy, officially known as Whatizit, was the baffling, bug-eyed mascot of the ’96 games. I’m not sure why the Olympic Mascot can never just be, like, a regular cartoon kitten or an animated tiger, but for whatever reason they always go for amorphous CGI blobs – a tradition that started with Izzy. Prior to the Atlanta Games, mascots always were cute or at least identifiable, but the new millennium was on the horizon and we were really proud every time we managed to computer-generate something.
In the 20 years since the Atlanta Olympics, Izzy’s legacy has endured. The 2004 mascot: an abstract take on an ancient Greek doll; looks like a BBC cartoon from the late 80s that PBS would air before Mr. Rogers. 2008: I don’t even get it, they each correspond to a word of Welcome To Beijing but ALSO to five elements but ALSO they bear a wish but ALSO they represent the color of the Olympic rings. Obviously had quite a committee there. 2012: just terrible; standing blobs more or less. Look what Izzy started.
After the games, Izzy appeared in a 1997 special, Izzy’s Quest for Olympic Gold, which aired on TNT one time. There was a computer game (on CD Rom, naturally) and a video game (Super Nintendo, as was the fashion).
As of 2016, Whatizit can be found on eBay for relatively uninflated prices, since nobody really liked him (her?) in the first place.
In 1996, Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron and ushered in the modern Olympic Games on their 100th anniversary.
Cut to 20 years later, and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young is calling the cauldron an “embarrassment” and comparing it to “the bridge over the river Kwai.”
Basically, a bunch of architects were put into a team to design the cauldron. The result was kind of funny looking, further illustrating why group work is the actual worst. GROUP WORK. Ugh.
The Macarena fad celebrates its 20th birthday this year, but in 1996 it was the cool dance craze sweeping the nation. Delegates at the Democratic National Convention bounced along, every kid in America knew the steps, and – in what I will call the high point of its existence – the Magnificent 7 performed the dance at the gymnastics arena. Somehow, Dominique Moceanu even manages to move her hands like she’s doing that weird vogue stuff they always do in the corner during a floor exercise. Shannon Miller rounds it off with a sassy flip. Kerri Strug avoids putting weight on her ankle, still in a brace after her injury. Dominique Dawes, objectively speaking, is the best at it.
Macarena quickly met the fate of all cool dance crazes: old people learned how to do it, it became terminally dorky, and it is now standard fare at weddings.
We’re not discussing athletes here, but coaches are fair play. Besides, in the public sphere Karolyi was not just a coach, he was a pop culture phenomenon. Remember how the phrase “you can do it” took off as a catch phrase after Bela encouraged poor, injured Kerri to finish her event?
As could be expected, in the years that follows allegations of Karolyi’s harsh – even abusive – coaching style began to surface. He became the team coordinator of USA Gymnastics, publicly reviled for his intensive camps while still somewhat respected for his professional success. Karolyi’s wife Marta became the U.S. team coordinator in 2001, a position she still holds. Bela has served as a gymnastics commentator occasionally and continues to own the infamous Ranch. A NBC Sports documentary about the Karolyis is forthcoming.
I don’t have the talent, drive, or correct height to become any kind of Olympic athlete, but I would give anything to experience the international camaraderie of the Olympic Village. It always seems like such a downer to see photographs of the village months and years after the games – abandoned, crumbling into ruin, a waste of planning, budget and infrastructure.
But not in Atlanta! The city built athletic facilities with the future in mind, then retrofit them for the games. As a result, almost all of the sites are in use today (except for the tennis courts, which don’t look great.)
My favorite reuse has to be the Olympic Village dormitories, which are now Georgia Tech housing. I can think of no better afterlife for Olympic dorms – I’m just trying not to think about how most of the people using them now weren’t even alive for the ’96 games.