Twenty years ago this week, the city of Atlanta welcomed the world to the 1996 Olympic Games. As both a longtime Olympic sponsor and hometown brand, Coca-Cola made the most out of the opportunity to host the Games in its own backyard, welcoming nearly 800,000 fans to the 12-acre Coca-Cola Olympic City attraction in downtown’s Centennial Olympic Park and delighting collectors from around the world in a pair of Coca-Cola Olympic Pin Trading Centers. Oh, and of course refreshing thirsty spectators, staff and athletes with ice-cold beverages.
We caught up with several Coca-Cola veterans who supported the company’s on-site activation in various capacities back in the summer of 1996 and invited them to take us on a walk down memory lane as we gear up for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Here are their words and photos:
Job then: PR Manager, Coca-Cola Olympic City
Job now: VP, Brand and Business Communications, Coca-Cola North America
I was PR Manager for Coca-Cola Olympic City, the company’s interactive Olympic experience. It was the best job I’ll ever have. My job was to assist news media in securing the best possible stories they could get in and around this wonderful venue we’d created. It was the embodiment of the phrase from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” We hosted more then 3,000 media from around the world that summer, which for a PR guy was nirvana. I served as a Coke spokesman, so I had my on-camera interview swag down pretty well. Until my parents visited me and got to see their son about to be interviewed, that is. My mom decided I was still seven years old and proceeded to lick her finger and clean a smudge off of my face, in front of my whole team and the visiting reporter and camera man. I’ve never lived that down.
We’re a global business, but in 1996 everyone here was thinking about making the most of our opportunity to host the Games in our hometown. There was a sense of unity and focus around what needed to get done. We could literally look out of our offices at Coke and see the venues being built. The company also supplied a tremendous amount of volunteers to help staff the competition venues. Everyone working here somehow touched the Games.
The concept of Coca-Cola Olympic City was birthed around 1994, and we started working on a communications plan about 18 months out. It opened in May 1996. To generate the ROI we needed – and to serve a strategic purpose for the company and the city of Atlanta – we needed to be open that entire summer. Coca-Cola Olympic City was not an “official” Olympic venue, but it was one of the first spots to open downtown, so it was a magnet for international fans and press who came to Atlanta early, as well as Atlantans who planned to leave the city during the action but still wanted a taste of the Games.
The experience included different interactive sporting activities to give fans a sense of what it would be like to be an Olympic athlete. You could run a 100-meter dash against a “virtual” Olympian running next to you, for example, and get your photo taken with the Olympic Torch. There was a small amphitheater where we hosted concerts at night, and we had a big merchandise tent, a pin trading center, a freestanding McDonald’s, athlete appearances and more. For many people, it became their de-facto Olympic experience. Tickets were affordable, so people came back multiples times. It had something for everyone.
Coke’s presence in Atlanta was ubiquitous, yet tasteful and appropriate. We never got the sense from Atlanta Olympic Committee or the USOC or athletes or fans, that we had diminished their experience. Quite the contrary. Everything we did enhanced the experience for all. I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride, as a native Georgian living in Atlanta, that the city was able to get it done. Leaving the venue that last time, I remember thinking: “We really pulled it off.”
Job then: Marketing Director of Coca-Cola Olympic City
Job now: VP, Global Communications & Planning for The McDonald’s Division
The 1996 Olympic Games was the reason I started my career at Coca-Cola. In fact, I was involved with bringing the Olympic Games to Atlanta in the first place. While still a student at Georgia Tech, I was a co-op engineer at Coca-Cola, and also volunteered to work with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Olympic Committee to help bring the Games to town. When we were awarded the bid in September 1990 over Athens (Greece), I knew I wanted to leverage my knowledge and experience with the Atlanta Olympic bid into a job with the most visible Olympic sponsor in town – Coca-Cola. I pursued an internship and got it and, at the end of that summer, I was offered a full-time role working on Coke’s newly formed Atlanta Olympic team.
Shortly thereafter, I was part of the team that developed the plans for Coca-Cola Olympic City. We set out to create an "only-Coke-can-do" experience that would make fans feel what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete. And the twist was that we wanted it to be open for the entire summer of ‘96. The concept went through four major iterations over two to three years, and we landed on the final design 18 months out from the Games.
It’s hard to put into words the experience of working on the Olympics for four years at Coca-Cola. Campaigns come and go, but with a global event this big, everybody – and I mean everybody – wanted to add their thumbprint. It was unique to see the company do something so big and so extraordinary with the world on its doorstep. And it was amazing to see our vision and plans come out of the earth, literally. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m 20-something years old getting to design, market and operate an Olympic fan experience for one of the world’s biggest brands.” Frankly, just being on site would have been enough.
Hundreds of thousands of consumers visited Coca-Cola Olympic City, and we hosted stars, media, heads of state and other VIPs from around the world. It was the quintessential way for Coca-Cola to welcome the world to our home — and to share the world of the Olympics with our hometown.
To top it all off, on the day before opening ceremonies, my boss walked into my office. “What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked. “I’ll be right here,” I replied. He said, “Well, you’ll need to make a stop, because you’ll be carrying the Olympic Torch half of the way way down Luckie Street to company headquarters.” I’ve been at Coke 27 years now, and that was one of the greatest experiences of my career and life. My family and friends – including many of my colleagues I worked with on the Coca-Cola Olympic City project – lined the route and cheered me on. Carrying the Olympic flame was the perfect culmination to several years of work, dating back to 1988 when I helped bring the Games to Atlanta. I was on cloud nine.
Job then: Business Affairs Counsel
Job now: Group Director, Worldwide Sports and Entertainment
The Atlanta Olympics were held during the “Always Coca-Cola” era. Every day during the Games, we created a new 30-second TV spot that aired the next day. One of my jobs was to help source and clear intellectual property rights for athlete footage and photography. I tracked down agents and worked to ensure our use was consistent with contract standards. We were fueling a content monster that was, in many ways, a precursor to real-time marketing.
We redeployed almost our entire workforce to support our activation. I’d be hosting someone at the swimming venue and walk in and see a colleague from security or legal. Experiencing the Games as a fan and then looking at the same scene through the eyes of a Coke employee and thinking, “I know exactly what it took to make this happen” was both fun and rewarding.
The brand set of focusing our Olympic activation on Coke and POWERADE was something that matured in Atlanta and we’ve used ever since…that distinction of POWERADE fueling athletes on the field and Coke in the stands with the fans. But the biggest legacy in my mind was the new model for the Olympic Torch Relay we co-created in Atlanta with the local organizing committee and have continued. The Torch Relay has been a great property for the brand, but we also created this sub-property for the Olympics that is now their biggest experiential program other than the Games itself.
I’ve worked on more than a dozen Olympic Games, and people ask which one was the most special. I always say Atlanta because of the fact that it was our hometown and we lived through the experience of preparing for the Games. It was an overwhelming sense of pride to be involved and see all the ways the company supports events like the Olympics in unique and powerful ways. One thing I did was support our acquisition of the downtown Atlanta property we put together that’s now Pemberton Place. When the city was quietly struggling to source the money and political willpower to put together Centennial Olympic Park, Coca-Cola quietly stepped up and provided a significant portion of funding. From behind the scenes, I saw how instrumental we were in helping deliver so much of the legacy of what people remember about the Atlanta Games.
Job then: Brand PR Manager, Coca-Cola North America
Job now: VP, Corporate Communications
I was headquartered at Coca-Cola Olympic City working on a program called Coca-Cola Radio, which hosted stations from around the world. I also coordinated on-site media, lining up interviews and helping crews find spots for remote broadcasts. Media from all over the world came there to do stories, some on Coke and others who just needed a great backdrop. Because we were in such a centrally located spot, we had athletes and celebrities coming in all the time, which created great opportunities for us from a media perspective… but we had to be nimble. We’d hear that a gold medal-winner would be coming by for a tour, and we’d quickly send out a media alert. One of my favorite memories was when the Lithuanian basketball team came through. They were one of the best teams in the world, with several NBA All-Stars. Interestingly, the team was sponsored by the Grateful Dead. For their signature look, they wore tie-dyed t-shirts wherever they went. I still have one at home. Seeing these guys – all of whom were well over six feet tall – walking through Coca-Cola Olympic City wearing Grateful Dead shirts was, as you can imagine, quite a sight.
I also led the PR program for our Coca-Cola Red Hot Olympic Summer promotion. We kicked off in June at the World of Coke. We had a giant tent filled with 100 vending machines. Several of our athlete partners, including U.S. gold medalists Michael Johnson, Summer Sanders, Evelyn Ashford, Pablo Morales and Steve Lundquist, ran an autograph relay where they had to sign each machine as fast as possible. I can’t remember who won, but it was a great media event and preview to our Games-time activation.
Our activation was so comprehensive… we painted the town red, literally. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a Coca-Cola connection. Sports marketing was in its infancy, so Coca-Cola Olympic City was ahead of its time as an experiential marketing asset.
But it’s not so much what we did that summer. It’s more about the legacy we helped create by purchasing the land at the north end of Centennial Olympic Park where Coca-Cola Olympic City was located. It’s now known as Pemberton Place, home of the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. You would have never recognized the space before, so it’s amazing to see the vibrancy there now.
Job then: Coca-Cola Archivist (now retired)
I worked primarily in our two official Coca-Cola Olympic Pin Trading Centers. One was at the Georgia Freight Depot at Underground Atlanta, across the plaza from where the World of Coca-Cola was, and near the old Omni. And the second was in Centennial Olympic Park. I spent all day meeting people from around the world and trading pins. It was an exciting place to be. My son was 13, and he’d come with me some days and spend the day trading pins.... which we still have.
We had a Coca-Cola Pin of the Day program where we’d release limited quantities of a new pin each day during the Games. If someone collected all of them, they’d piece together to form a Coca-Cola contour bottle. These became a cherished souvenir; people lined up to get them. The one rule in the centers was that you had to have pins to trade – not sell. The whole idea was to meet people from different places and, even if you didn’t speak the same language, hold up up a pin to share. We promoted friendship and conversation among people of all ages from all walks of life and every corner of the world.
At the time, the World of Coca-Cola was located at Underground Atlanta, so we had a lot going on there, too. A highlight for me was when Al Roker from the TODAY show interviewed me at the World of Coke while wearing my pin trading uniform.
All of us in communications at Coke had the opportunity to do something at the Games, which was really cool. We were excited to be involved with a world-class event and represent the Coca-Cola brand in our own hometown. It’s one of those experiences I’ll never forget. We had so much fun meeting people from around the world and talking about Coca-Cola. We saw the power of the brand up close.
Job then: Global Marketing Communications Manager
Job now: Director, Internal, Executive and Ambassador Communications, Coca-Cola North America
I was part of the team that created the Coca-Cola Olympic Salute to Folk Art program, which we exhibited at the Georgia Freight Depot during the Games. The program celebrated the Coca-Cola contour bottle – we introduced the 20-ounce PET contour bottle in 1993 – so we came up with the idea of using our beloved botle as a canvas and giving countries that may not have a big athletic focus the chance to be seen at the Olympic Games through art. We received bottles from 59 countries. Some countries commissioned artists, and others launched contests to identify new or young artists. The idea was to reflect their unique culture and traditions. We got some things we never imagined… opening the crates was like Christmas morning. One bottle from Trinidad & Tobago was twelve-and-a-half feet wide, and another from Brazil weighed 4,000 pounds! I remember someone from a South American country said, “We may not have great Olympians, but we have great artists.” Everyone took a lot of pride in the program because these pieces of art were so individually expressionistic. It checked every box of what’s special about Coca-Cola – the uniqueness of the bottle shape, that it brings people together, the celebration of local communities and cultures, and more.
In my 25 years at Coke, this is one of the most unique and surprising programs in terms of how we impacted people. Some smaller countries with no tradition of winning medals hosted national sendoffs for these bottles to make the trip to Atlanta. It became a great international PR tool.
The exhibit was so popular that we took it on the road after the Olympics. The traveling exhibit visited several countries throughout Europe in late 1997 and early 1998, drawing huge crowds in shopping malls and train stations. Afterwards, several of the bottles were displayed at the World of Coke and here at our headquarters.
Former Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta trades Olympic pins with two fans.
I also managed PR for our pin trading centers. We’re always looking for new ways to keep the tradition fresh and interesting, so we had the idea to host a pin trading school during the Atlanta Games. We wanted the classes to be free, so we did an old-fashioned drawing 15 minutes before every session. Two classes were held each day in the morning and one in the afternoon, and it was extremely popular. Participants learned about the history of pin trading and what makes some pins more popular or valuable, and picked up tips on trading etiquette. We kept it fun – the classes were led by two “Pin Professors” who were pin trading experts with great senses of humor. Fans who completed a class earned an “MPA” or “Masters of Pin Administration” and left with a diploma and limited-edition pin.
The success of both the folk art exhibit and pin trading class are examples of the steps Coke takes to include everyone in the Olympic experience – even those without tickets – by creating experiences that bring people together and make them happy.