Richmond and the Olympic Torch, 1996
As the Summer Games kick off in Tokyo, let’s turn our attention to Richmond’s own Olympic history. Are you surprised that Richmond has an Olympic history? It does! In 1996, the Olympic torch passed through and even spent the night here, on its way to Atlanta. If that doesn’t seem very noteworthy, let us illuminate the significance of the event.
First, the choice of Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games was controversial. To be blunt, many considered Atlanta to be a second-tier city unworthy of the prestigious event. Compounding that, Atlanta (like other southern cities) had not overcome its reputation as an epicenter for injustice: slavery, followed by segregation, followed by racial violence during the Civil Rights Movement. That long history, which included the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War, was hard for many Americans to forget. For detractors, Atlanta did not represent the “American ideals” that should be presented to the world. For supporters of the Atlanta Games, however, the Olympics offered the perfect opportunity to showcase a new and reformed American South, which they believe had overcome this painful history. No doubt, this historic rehabilitation was on the minds of many Southerners, not just Georgians. So when the Olympic torch arrived in Richmond on June 21, 1996, citizens rallied in support, enthusiasm, and optimism.
The “Mother Torch” had left Athens, Greece, on April 27, aboard a Delta flight to Los Angeles. They were granted special permission for the airborne flame, which burned inside a brass lantern, inside a bronze canister, while affixed to the wall of the plane. From Los Angeles, the Olympic flame began its 15,000-mile, 84-day journey to Atlanta. The fire was carried by hand by 10,000 torch bearers, who made their individual half-mile journeys to light the next torch in line. Some walked, some ran, others rode bikes or wheelchairs or motorcycles. Every night, the Mother Flame stayed in a hotel room with two police officers: one slept, while the other kept watch to make sure the flame never went out.
The actual torches—17,700 of them—weighed three pounds and were outfitted with dual burners that could withstand rain and 45mph winds. The lit torches were further protected by a motorcade of Georgia State Troopers, Olympic Committee vehicles, and many sponsor cars, including a fleet of Coca-Cola trucks and trailers, stocked to sell to thirsty spectators along the epic journey across the country. This was, after all, the first Olympics to rely almost exclusively on corporate sponsors. The Georgia State Troopers rode in $33,000 BMWs that were painted like the $18,000 Crown Victorias they normally drove.
The torch entered Richmond via Monument Avenue on the night of June 21. Around 9:45pm, it passed one of the major symbols of our “reformed” southern city: the Arthur Ashe, Jr. Monument, which was to be unveiled in just a couple weeks.
In all, 24 locals moved the torch through Richmond. Thousands lined the dark streets to watch the procession. At 10:30pm, Judy Henry, a cancer survivor and mother of five relayed the torch to Tredegar, where approximately 15,000 spectators cheered her on as she lit the cauldron and kicked off a gala. Among the flags of 100 nations, live music, food carts and living gold-painted statues, the party went on late into the night and turned out to be much larger than anyone expected.
Newspaper accounts and interviews about the Olympic event here alluded to optimism, unity and joy. Kids freely confessed to reporters that they had skipped school to follow the torch, others that they had skipped work. Clearly, Richmonders glimpsed hope in the Olympic torch’s brief stay here. But by 10am the next morning, it had moved on to Petersburg.
On July 19, the flame arrived in Atlanta. There, Muhammad Ali received the final torch and lit the cauldron to open the 1996 Summer Games. Thus, the city devastated by fire in 1864 hoped for rebirth through a different kind of fire. The Reformed South was now in full public view. And Ali, near the end of the games, was given a replacement gold medal for the boxing gold he had won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Decades earlier, Ali claimed to have thrown his original medal in the Ohio River, after being refused service at a Louisville restaurant. Though some doubted the story, the medal had definitely been lost and it seemed fitting for him to reclaim his lost gold in the Reformed South.
But now we need to backtrack back to Richmond, to the glorious few hours when the Olympic torch illuminated our streets and so many felt inspired. This would be a poor history indeed if we stuck to the pre-approved parade route down Monument Avenue. Because in 1996, when the torch came through, Richmond was in a terrible state. Not since the Civil War had our city been so devastated. For twenty years, the population had been plummeting, mainly due to white flight in response to desegregation and busing. By 1990, Richmond had lost over 50,000 residents. It is likely that the majority of those 15,000 spectators who welcomed the Olympic flame at Tredegar did not live in Richmond at all.
As tax dollars, jobs, businesses and middle-class families fled to the suburbs, the city’s population then dwindled even more, for the loss of these things. Decades of racist housing policies added fuel to the fire. It was a death spiral of factors that mostly left only those who could not leave: mainly poor Black Richmonders, with little public support and even fewer opportunities to help themselves in the empty city. The poverty and desperation became the substrate from which a crack epidemic exploded. The homicide rate reached triple digits in 1988. In 1994, 160 people were murdered here. The crack epidemic ravaged our neighborhoods and though it bore a striking resemblance to today’s opioid epidemic, there were two main differences: the victims of crack were largely Black; and the crisis was considered one of crime, not public health. With that, there was little help for addiction, mostly just jail. The desperation and criminality created its own death spiral, and it was not uncommon to hear automatic gunfire on the residential streets of Church Hill.
So that is the city through which the Olympic torch passed in the summer of 1996. People no doubt felt afraid as they crowded along Richmond streets at night to see the historic flame, as they walked back to their cars late after the gala ended. When they spoke vaguely of “bad news” and “recent events,” they were actually speaking of the rampant crime. Despite the belief of many in a Reformed South and despite hopes that the Atlanta games might spark that belief into reality, Richmond’s problems were still very much rooted in racial injustice and would only get worse. The next year, 1997, Richmond would have the highest per-capita murder rate in the country. Clearly, the problem could not be solved with mere symbolism—not a torch or a monument. And though meaningful progress has come, and the idea of a Reformed Richmond does seem more tangible today, there is still so much more to do. That lesson on the limits of symbolism still applies.