For many Savannahians, this year’s summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro brought back memories of the 1996 Games hosted in Atlanta.  Although the big peach was the hub for the majority of the Games, Savannah served an important role when it came to hosting the sailing portion.  With Atlanta landlocked, Savannah provided Wassaw Sound, the nearby bay, and plenty of space for the Olympic yacht and boating races.  From July 22 to August 2, 1996, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of locals united to witness a historic first for the city.  Today, Savannah’s Olympic Yachting Cauldron remains on River Street’s east end, commemorating the original lighting on July 20, 1996.

Boating Beginnings

One of the on-the-water volunteers that summer was Jeanne Marotta, a general practice physician based in Savannah. Marotta and her crew of volunteers set up the sailing races, ran and scored them, and routinely reported to the Olympic Committee boat. According to Marotta, each one-desigsailboat — a form of racing where all competitors use boats of almost identical design — had its own team assigned to them, and Marotta’s team ran the Men’s Laser course.

Marotta called her experience as an Olympic Volunteer one of her greatest memories, and she still has some of her volunteer uniform items. She and her late husband had the opportunity to attend the Atlanta Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal, to which all the Savannah volunteers were invited.

During the pre-Olympic events, Marotta and her team got to know many of the U.S. Sailing Team Men’s Laser sailors, with whom she still remains in touch. Marotta and her husband were familiar with John McIntosh Jr. and his father, the late John McIntosh, both paramount figures in organizing the initial regattas and the pre-Olympic preparations leading up to the sailing events.

“Our Pre-Olympic and Olympic regatta team was led by John Gervais and Gifford Usher, and we nicknamed ourselves the River Rats. We even wore matching bandanas to signify our solidarity in the races leading up to the games,” Marotta said.  “My fondest memories of the games were all basically things that happened on the water – from silliness like Gifford air guitaring on the bow of the boat to blasting (an) Eagle’s song, to all of us pitching in to move sailors to safety in Savannah’s typical July/August pop-up thunderstorms.  It’s really hard to believe it was 20 years ago.”  

Multiple boats were on each race course with three to four crew members on each boat, according to Marotta.  Because of the intense time commitment, Marotta and many of her fellow crew members got involved early in the preparation process by running local Pre-Olympic events in the year prior to the actual Games.

In the late 90s, before cell phones were ubiquitous, all of the communication happened in real time via radios, and “we are pretty sure we were the first group to use rangefinders to set the actual distances of the start line and course leg lengths,” Marotta said.  

In the days before social media, and because sailing did not receive heavy news coverage, the volunteers used the innovative method of transmitting results to the internet by entering the sail letters of the boats as they rounded the mark.  “I was told that data was sent in text form, and people following the race on the computer could see how their sailor was doing,” Marotta said.

In reflecting on her volunteer team, Marotta is grateful for the experience, noting she would do it all again “in a heartbeat.”  

“I remember much of it like it was just yesterday – and I hate cliches,” Marotta said.  “Overall, I consider it a truly wonderful experience – absolutely something that for me, will come along only once.”

“..A Unique Olympic Experience.”

Timothy Guidera, a former Savannah Morning News sports columnist who is now a features reporter at WTOC-TV, has seen and covered his share of both summer and winter Olympic Games.  In addition to covering the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Guidera reported on the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and the 2004 Games in Athens.

“In Sydney, there were two of us from Morris (the parent company of the Savannah Morning News), and I focused on weightlifting but also covered probably two other sports every day,” Guidera said. “At Salt Lake and Athens, I coordinated a team of four from Morris – making schedules, assigning stories to all the reporters, communicating with sports editors across the country in addition to covering a variety of sports every day.”

At the time of the ‘96 Games, Guidera was a sports columnist covering multiple events. Because he was the only person from the Savannah Morning News on the team in Atlanta, Guidera was not present for the Savannah portion of the Games.  He did, however, cover a few pre-Olympic events in the area.

Sailing was one of the more complicated sports to cover, according to Guidera.  All the competition took place at Wassaw Sound, which meant members of the press had to ride out in boats to watch the races, then return to land for writing and conducting interviews.  

Prior to the start of the games, the Olympic torch traveled all over Georgia with dozens of local celebrities running the flame. When it came to Savannah, the ceremony had particular importance, Guidera recalls.

“It arrives by boat on River Street, made its way around the city and finally to Forsyth Park, where Michael Cohen was chosen to light Savannah’s Olympics flame,” Guidera recalled.  “Michael, a weightlifter, was a member of the 1980 Olympic team that did not compete in the Games when we boycotted the Moscow Olympics.  His flame in Forsyth remained lit throughout the Olympics.”

Having covered multiple Games, Guidera has come to appreciate the smaller, less publicized events.

“When you meet those athletes, they seem so much more real than the NBA players or major track stars who get all the attention,” Guidera said. “And an Olympic medal seems to mean so much more to them, because it is the absolute pinnacle of their sport, whereas a basketball player would prefer to win an NBA championship no matter what they say during the Olympics.”

A Family Affair  

John McIntosh Jr. grew up in Savannah and started racing sailboats at a young age.  This hobby led to his involvement in organizing racing events, sailing in the 1980 Olympic Trials, and eventually playing a major role in the administration of the 1996 Olympic Games with his father, the late John McIntosh.  

“I was the Competition Manager for Yachting,” McIntosh said. “Each sport in the games had a Competition Manager that was responsible for that sport.  That is to say that I was ACOG’s head of Yachting, now Sailing.  I was hired in 1993 and worked until December of 1996.  We had a paid staff of about 40 folks on the ‘Sport’ side.  There was also a ‘Venue’ paid staff responsible for the ‘Day Marina,’ tents and grounds.  The ‘Village’ staff provided the housing and the feeding of the athletes and officials.”

McIntosh and his staff were responsible for a number of the Games operation duties, including providing the competition boats for five of the 10 “Single Handed” events; the 1,000 “Sport” volunteers; the over 100 support power boats used to conduct the event; and the media and TV boats and boat drivers.  They were also tasked with the measuring of the athlete provided boats as well as the overseers of the ferry boats that transported the athletes and officials to the “Day Marina.”

To bring the Sailing Games to Savannah, “My father, John McIntosh, along with Archie Davis, Bobby Groves, Gary Oetgen and others were asked to form a committee to help the Atlanta Bid Committee chose a site for Sailing and put on a demonstration event for the International Yacht Racing officials,” McIntosh said.  “We did a demonstration event in the ocean outside of Wassaw Sound prior to Atlanta being awarded the Games.”

“Because the sailing world had little experience in our waters and because we needed to train a huge number of race management volunteers, there was pressure to conduct a series of sailing events building towards the games,” McIntosh said.  “We started in 1993 with our first ‘International’ event and held another 16 events before the actual games.”

“The Savannah Sailing Center, SSC, was the organization that conducted all of these events, including the 1995 ACOG Test Event and the US Olympic Trials,” McIntosh said.  “My father was instrumental in fundraising for a great deal of what happened.”

During the daily meetings, the athletes were ferried to the Day Marina, and the event boats headed out to sea.  “After all of the meetings, I would rush to sea to be on site for the competition,” McIntosh said.  “Depending on the day the management issue could be calm or busy.  We had an unusual amount of named storms that years and an unusual number of thunderstorms.”

McIntosh and his staff worked from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. almost every day of the Games, which meant they did not have too much time to go out in the evenings.  “We, of course, heard the stories and did slip out a night or two,” McIntosh said.  “River Street was hopping every night. Many of the sailors partied very hard.”

When Atlanta was awarded the Games in 1990, the sailing establishment in the U.S. said it would be impossible for Savannah to handle the conduct of the sport, according to McIntosh.  The stories and experiences of Marotta, Guidera, and McIntosh prove how the city and its people rose to the occasion and united under the Olympic spirit.  “Savannah got organized and conducted a first class event through the hard work of many in our community,” McIntosh said.   

Marotta believes the Olympics brought a sense of pride and community to Savannah, both in the years leading up to the ’96 Games and during them.  Savannah, as she observed, has traditionally been the kind of city in which its residents pull together for a common goal.  

“Look at the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew and you see what this city can do when challenged,” Marotta said.  “Sailing is not the most watched event in the US during the summer games.  There are countries around the world where the sailors are well known and the regattas are followed enthusiastically.  The Olympics shined a spotlight on Savannah, and she delivered, broadcasting via TV and online to the world.  It was amazing.”