It's Not the Glory: Scenes from the opening of the 1996 Olympics
There was some debate if they should go to Atlanta that July night in 1996. After all, they had a game in two days against Denmark. Shouldn’t all their energy, all their focus, be reserved for the Danes? This tournament, the 1996 Olympic Games, was important for so many reasons. First, that awful taste from the 1995 World Cup loss to Norway was still fresh, that image of the Norwegian players celebrating as you watched is burnt into your brain. Being third is very un-American, isn’t it? No one rejoices with the chant, “We’re number three, we’re number three.”
So re-establishing their place at the top of the women’s soccer world was crucial. Their country is hosting the Olympics this year. Family and friends don’t have to fly to Europe or Asia to watch them play. And maybe new fans will be made, maybe the event will draw some people who will like what they see and come back. After all, isn’t that what they’ve been working for all these years? Maybe they should just stay in Orlando. Their coach, Tony DiCicco, understands some things, though. Fortunately, one of the things he understands is that taking part in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies—especially on your home soil—is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an American athlete.
You feel like you are five years old, and it’s your first time at Disneyland. Your stomach is churning, and there is so much emotion it’s incredible. You’re waving, screaming, hugging, and crying. That’s when it all kind of hits you.”
So here they are. They can hear the crowd, but can’t see it. Heck, they’re not even inside yet. Everyone still has to cross a parking lot and go up some long stairs. And to make the wait even more unbearable, the hosts are last in line. Without a doubt, the place is packed. What’s it like in there? Never mind in there. Look around. It may be the greatest gathering of American athletes in your lifetime, maybe your parent’s lifetime. Just look! U.S. Olympians are all around—sprinters, swimmers, gymnasts, basketball players—people seen on TV, celebrities all over the place. The players are starting to understand. They, too, are Olympic athletes. They’re at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium waiting to enter the stadium for the Parade of Nations. The procession that started with Afghanistan and went alphabetically through Zimbabwe is nearly completed.
“You could hear them announce the United States of America, and you could hear all the fans just go nuts,” said Mia Hamm. “Everyone kind of started pushing to get to the top to see what it was like. When we got to the top we just wanted to stop, just stand there and look at all these people cheering. Then you get the goosebumps and try to hold back tears. Then you just start running down the ramp, and the organizers are saying, ‘Please, in an orderly fashion!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You feel like you are five years old, and it’s your first time at Disneyland. Your stomach is churning, and there is so much emotion it’s incredible. You’re waving, screaming, hugging, and crying. That’s when it all kind of hits you.”
It might have been the first time, but it certainly would not be the last. The players took pictures and videos of people taking pictures and videos of them. Years later, Brandi Chastain would liken it to a zoo, but she was never sure who was in the zoo and who was looking in.
Now back to Orlando, where they spent the past year living and training as part of a residency program paid for by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Kind of anticlimactic, isn’t it? Still, the team has moved into the Olympic Village, with all the other soccer teams. The village is a highly protected quad of dorms on the University of Central Florida campus. There are gates and checkpoints and guards. Visitors are escorted the entire time they are inside the fences. The escorts are attractive UCF co-eds, who inform you that a day earlier, a Saudi Prince tried to buy them. Yes, buy them. Security is tight, but the atmosphere is loose. The head of security tells you his name is Captain Bob, and when you ask why you don’t see any weapons anywhere, Captain Bob coldly replies, “You aren’t supposed to.”
“Everywhere we stayed, drove, or played, we had FBI, Highway Patrol, Riot Police, SWAT teams, Federal Marshals, canine units—you name it, we had it,” said Michelle Akers. “At practices we had helicopters flying overhead, metal detectors, bomb dudes. They were all incredible, and they became some of our biggest fans.” Uniformed law enforcement officers had their pictures taken with the players, and the team signed posters, balls, and T-shirts for their new friends. Members of the detail assigned to the U.S. team would become fans and stay in touch with some of the players over the years. While all the security was new and exciting to the players, the best part was the ride to the stadiums. A collection of police cars would arrive at the Olympic Village and escort the team bus to the stadium, sirens blaring. Leading the route was a helicopter checking out the path ahead. “Traffic parted like the Red Sea, and all of a sudden, we were someone special,” said Akers.
The USA played their first-ever Olympic match in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on July 21, 1996. Briana Scurry started in goal. Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, and Brandi Chastain were the three defenders. Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Tisha Venturini, and Shannon MacMillan made up the midfield, while Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett formed the latest version of the Triple Edge Sword. When the players took the field 90 minutes before the match to warm up, roughly 10,000 people were in the stands. It was by far the largest crowd that had come out to see the team play in the U.S. The players, still unaware of the type of social impact they were having, were delighted to see so many people in the stands. “We were thrilled,” said Venturini. “Hey, if we see a couple thousand people, we get stoked.” Then, they went back into the locker room.
When we came out of the tunnel, and the music started playing, I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is the Olympics,’”
In the locker room, every player had their own routine before games. Some listened to music, some sat quietly, some preferred nervous chatter. “Eventually, everyone ends up at the same place—the tunnel,” said Akers. “It’s one of my favorite places, because we are all their high-fiving, giving encouragement, and getting pumped up.” The tunnel is one of the most interesting places in sports. It’s where the players spend those last few minutes of that excruciatingly long wait for the game to begin, the game they have worked toward and looked forward to for so long. It’s the place where they have nothing to do but think. Nothing to do but wonder what the game will bring and what they will bring to it. Can they bring their very best? And if they can, will their very best be good enough? Eventually, their time in the tunnel ends, the game begins and their questions are answered. The 11 starters lined up next to Denmark’s 11 starters and walked out of the dark tunnel to the Olympic theme music and found an overwhelming sight—a crowd of 25,303.
“When we came out of the tunnel, and the music started playing, I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is the Olympics,’” said Hamm. “This is what I watched on TV growing up. I saw my family holding up their sign, and I saw my sister wipe her eyes. Then I started crying.” The USA settled down quickly and took a 3-0 win from Denmark.