ATLANTA OLYMPICS 1996 – Chapter 3

The build up to the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics in Georgia, was filled with excitement and expectation, embraced passionately by the South African team of 84 athletes.

Included in the overall team of athlete and management were East Londoners, Gideon Sam who would go on in future years to take over at the helm of SASCOC, boxer Masibulele “Hawk” Makepula, a highly popular team member who became the flag bearer, hurdler Karen van der Veen (nee Wilkinson) and the scribe as marathon team manager.

The bus trip to the ceremony was tempered only by those who could not attend and for the swimmers who were up for competition the very next day, including double gold medallist Penny Heyns, who set the tone for the team by winning both the 100 and 200m breaststroke finals.

The wait in the adjacent stadium to Centennial Park, the home of the XXVI Olympiad, as the games were known, was a long one.

Walking down the ramp into the main stadium, to be welcomed by 85,600 cheering spectators, lifted the spirits ever higher for the athletes and none more so than the men’s marathon team. Closely aligned to the men were the distance runners in the women’s component, more specifically Colleen de Reuck, Elana Meyer and Gwen Griffiths.

The ceremony itself would take four hours with much high-class entertainment. The musical entertainers included Gladys Knight who sang Georgia’s official state song, Georgia on my Mind. 

Celine Dion was ever impressive, singing The Power of the Dream, written by David Foster who played the piano and was accompanied by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Centennial Choir. Emotions ran high.

Celebrities introduced during the ceremony included many heads of state, inclusive of then Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki and the Games were opened by Bill Clinton, President of the United States, accompanied by his wife Hillary.

From the entertainment and business world Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Jane Fonda and Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, were given rousing welcomes, while a most emotional welcome was bestowed upon Coretta Scott King, wife of the late Martin Luther King jnr.

The stadium absolutely erupted when boxing icon, former Olympic Gold Medallist and heavyweight champion of the world, Mohammed Ali was introduced. Ali was given the honour of lighting the Olympic Cauldron.

A few members of the team met up with Ali in the Athlete’s Village earlier in the day and that was highly motivational to them.

It was around this time that Xolile Yawa, one of the medal hopefuls in the marathon was feeling discomfort on his training runs. Always a leader and always as honest a runner as any, Yawa would come to the decision, backed up by the medical staff, that he should withdraw and return to South Africa. It was a blow to the team, but an opportunity at the same time.

Peu had earlier come to the conclusion that his part in the team as backup had fulfilled a purpose and he decided to fly to France to take part in a half marathon to which he had been invited. His flight was due two days before the opening of the games. TWA Flight 800 from JFK Airport to Paris crashed 12 minutes into the flight, over Long Island. There were no survivors. Peu had changed his mind and was not on the ill-fated flight.

With Yawa on his way home Peu was drafted into the final team and with the run itself on the horizon his life took on new meaning in every way. The race would be epic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *