1992 Olympic track trials made history, changed Tad Gormley, Sports Foundation
It started with an innocent piece of mail to the mayor’s office.
Three years later, it would be arguably the most significant summer sporting event ever hosted in New Orleans, one that would result in a major facility overhaul and change the course of motion for a sports entity that is now a primary player in our area’s sports landscape.
Twenty years ago, the New Orleans Sports Foundation – they’ve added the word “Greater” to their name since – played host to the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at Tad Gormley Stadium.
But in 1989, when The Athletics Congress, the national governing body for the sport, was soliciting bids for the event, the Crescent City’s chances of hosting seemed about as likely as being the host venue for the Winter Olympics.
Two men had a different idea.
The Sports Foundation was in its infancy in 1989 when Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s office received a letter from TAC with an invitation to bid on the trials three years later.
The mayor’s office passed it on to Sports Foundation executive director Mike Millay. His first call was to former LSU track coach Sam Seemes.
“I called Sam Seemes and said, ‘Hey, how can we get the Olympic Trials in track and field?'” said Millay, who now serves as director of sports development for ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World.
Said Seemes, who is now the executive director of the New Orleans-based U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association: “My first reaction was, where were you going to do them at? He asked me to come talk to him about it.”
The pair went to check out Gormley, which had been built in the 1930s but had only a cinder track.
“Sam came down and we looked at it,” Millay said. “He said, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this place even existed.’ I hadn’t even seen the track.”
Millay and Seemes consulted with Jimmy Carnes, the head men’s coach for the 1980 Olympic team who also coached at the University of Florida, and Jose Rodriguez, who now is the head of USA Judo.
“They looked at me,” Millay recalled, “and said, ‘You’ve never hosted a track meet before. How do you think you’re going to get the Olympic Trials.’ In this time, ignorance was truly bliss. I thought it was something the city of New Orleans could pull off.”
Borrowing computer equipment from a West Bank computer store, Millay and Seemes went about completing the bid packet. New Orleans would be one of 52 cities to bid.
At the TAC convention in Washington in December 1989, “We had to try to let people know New Orleans had some interest,” Seemes said. “The city fronted us some money to throw a reception one night.”
The reception menu – Louisiana shrimp and hurricanes. There would be just one small problem.
“The reception was going to be at 6:00 that night,” Millay said. “At 5:00, I go to the airport and there’s no shrimp. They put them on a flight to Dallas. Now I have everyone in the convention. I had to go buy shrimp from the Hyatt. Everyone someone would grab a plate of shrimp, I would ask them, ‘Who are you, and do you have a vote?’ We made sure we gave them plenty of hurricanes.”
Said Seemes, “I remember distinctly that (TAC executive director) Ollan Cassell jokingly said to us, ‘What are you going to do if you get this? Put it on at Tad Gormley Stadium?’ Ollan remembered Tad Gormley because he went to the University of Houston and ran in the Sugar Bowl meet at Tad Gormley Stadium.
“We played like we were big time and had a lot of smoke and mirrors going.”
The smoke and mirrors worked. When the votes came in, and New Orleans had made the cut down to six cities, along with Durham, N.C.; Eugene, Ore.; Knoxville, Tenn., Sacramento and Seattle. A nine-member site selection committee would review the six finalists at a July 1990 meeting.
“We went up to Chicago for the final presentation,” Seemes said. “We had a great presentation, it was well received, they voted right then and there and we impressed them enough that we got it.”
Said Millay: “Learning from our days of Louisiana politics, we knew that we had to count votes beforehand – who were the key influencers? Out of the nine votes, New Orleans got seven.”
Only, no one knew. The committee’s recommendation vote remained confidential until it was revealed to TAC’s international competition committee four months later in Seattle. The international competition committee would essentially be a rubber stamp for the site selection committee’s recommendation.
Still, leading up to the final vote, New Orleans was given little chance.
“Eugene and Sacramento are considered the leading contenders,” an Associated Press story reported on the eve of the convention. “Durham, Knoxville and Seattle also have had national-caliber events … New Orleans has not had a national-championship track event in recent years.”
The result indicated a change in the thought process of track and field. Seemes recalled what he told the site selection committee when they visited New Orleans.
“We’re going to run your track meet, but we’re going to make your Olympic Trials an event,” Seemes said. “Nobody else is going to be able to do that. Where are you going to go where they’ve done the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Republican National Convention? That idea really appealed to them.”
Mel Rosen, the 1992 Olympic men’s team coach, said as much on the day of the site announcement.
“The thing we need,” Rosen said, “is for the trials to become a big-time sports event.”
Now it was time to come up with the money to renovate Gormley and stage the event.
“Reality came real quick that we had to do all this stuff with no funding – no funds to rebuilt Gormley and no funds to put the meet on,” Seemes said. “There were a lot of people with a lot of willpower and a lot of want that made it happen – guys like Mike, Doug Thornton and Merv Trail drove the boat.”
Said Millay, “Sam thought (construction and staging costs) would be about $2 million. Of course, $8.5 million later, we were finally able to pull it off. We’ve been fired from every estimating committee since then.”
Once the 10-day event arrived, two stories dominated the headlines – one off the track, one on it.
Harry “Butch” Reynolds was the Olympic silver medalist in the 400 meters in 1988 in Seoul, but in the fall of 1990, he was suspended for two years by the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, for alleged illegal drug use.
Reynolds challenged the ruling, taking it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The court rulings held up the first round of the 400 at the Olympic Trials for four days, until finally, the high court said that Reynolds should be allowed to run.
But it wasn’t that easy. The IAAF said that if Reynolds ran in any race, it would be “contaminated” – in other words, anyone running against Reynolds would be banned from running in the Olympics.
“The whole Butch Reynolds was like something out of a movie,” Millay said. “I remember getting the call and going to Ollan Cassell and saying, ‘Ollan, I got a call that the Supreme Court has said that Butch Reynolds must be allowed to run in the Olympic Trials.’
“The International Olympic Committee said they didn’t care what your United States courts rule, they’re our Olympic Games.”
The delays pushed the first round of the 400 to the first off day of the Trials.
“The only day we had available was a dark day,” Millay said. “I had no volunteers, I didn’t have the National Guard, I didn’t have the police. I told Ollan, ‘Whatever it’s going to cost, you’re going to have to pay for it, and we’re not going to charge people to come in.’ He moved four heats of the 400 to that off day.”
And nearly 10,000 people showed up in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon to watch the first round of the 400.
Reynolds would finish fifth in the finals and did not qualify for the Olympics.
The on-track story had been promoted by a relatively new shoe and apparel company, Reebok, with decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. Merchandise had either “Dan” or “Dave” on it in bold letters, built around the theme, “Who is the world’s greatest athlete?”
Both were expected to easily qualify for Barcelona, with New Orleans just an intermediate stop in the campaign. But the pole vault got in the way.
O’Brien, an outstanding pole vaulter, led by 512 points after seven events and chose not to enter the pole vault until the competition reached 15 feet, nine inches. He famously missed on all three tries at the height, giving him zero points for the event and knocking him out of Olympic team contention.
“Just this week, Dan and I were talking about ’92,” Seemes said. “It was the lowest part of his life, but it made him that much better.”
O’Brien would come back four years later to win decathlon gold in Atlanta.
Millay named his third son, Daniel, after O’Brien.
“Last summer, (O’Brien) was (in Orlando) for the ESPNHS games,” Millay said. “Daniel’s now at Florida State, and he got to take a picture with his namesake, which was kind of fun.”
For 10 days, New Orleans had become a track and field town.
“Growing up, you go to Texas Relays, Penn Relays, Drake Relays,” said Shreveport native and former Louisiana-Lafayette All-American Hollis Conway, who qualified for his second straight Olympic team at the 1992 Trials. “I don’t remember going to a quality caliber meet like that in Louisiana. I was a little proud. This is my state, and to have all of them come here, enjoy our food and our culture, it was pretty amazing.
“When you’re at the Olympics and you’re taking a (victory) lap, you don’t really know those people, but you appreciate it. When you’re at home, and those people know you, there’s a connection to the crowd that’s kind of vibrant. It’s an electric feeling. I was so appreciative of that.”
When it was all said and done, a total of 137,262 had filed into Gormley over eight days – an average of 17,157 per session, and just short of the total attendance record for the Trials.
Once athletes, officials and media left the Crescent City, though, the lasting impact was even greater.
The facelift Gormley received turned it not only into a world-class track facility – it hosted the NCAA meet the following year and several other major college and high school events since – but a greatly improved venue for its primary tenants, high school football.
The Trials also established the Sports Foundation as something much more than it had been in its first four years of existence.
“It was a defining moment for the Sports Foundation, without question,” Millay said. “We had been a Super Bowl and Final Four town, and we were able to show that sports tourism was more than just that. At that time, there were only about 12-13 sports commissions in the country, and now there’s a national association with membership of over 500.”
Said Seemes: “It was truly a community effort, both from a standpoint of people volunteering to get the job done and the community buying tickets. We averaged more than 17,000 per day. We had 39 suites, which had never been done before.”
Twenty years after the fact, it’s still a great moment in our city’s sports history.
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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…