Known for its hedges and history, Sanford Stadium has been home to the University of Georgia football team since the first half of the 20th century. But the stadium also played a role in the rise of soccer in America.
Before the 1999 Women’s World Cup truly put soccer on the map in the U.S., Sanford Stadium hosted the 1996 Olympic soccer finals.
The 23rd anniversary of the 1996 gold medal game is coming up on Aug. 1, coinciding with this year’s push for gender equality in women’s soccer from the U.S. Women’s National Team which has brought past critical moments to the limelight.
Athens: International destination
Although the Women’s World Cup had been held twice before, 1996 was the first time soccer was opened up to women during the Olympic Games.
Eight teams — the United States, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, China, Japan and Brazil — participated in the 1996 women’s tournament.
The teams played group stage games in Miami, Orlando, Birmingham and Washington D.C., and the four teams that advanced to the knockout stage finished the tournament in Athens.
After defeating Norway, who has been one of the U.S.’s longest-standing rivalries in the women’s game, the Americans were set for a final at Sanford against China.
The gold medal match was attended by over 75,000 fans and had the highest attendance for a women’s soccer match until the 1999 World Cup final drew 90,000 fans to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
However, NBC decided not to televise the gold medal game. The 75,000 fans, by the volume of attendance, seemed to immediately invalidate the network’s decision. The NBC decision has become infamous, and networks began to take notice heading into the 1999 World Cup.
Marc Lancaster, who was a sports reporter for The Red & Black at the time of the games, worked as a press box volunteer through the summer, seeing how the games affected Athens.
“The soccer culture in the U.S. at the time was not anything like it is now,” Lancaster said. “And because the games were at Sanford, it was relatively easy to get tickets compared to some of the higher-demand events in Atlanta like swimming, track and gymnastics. So the crowds were really good. And the games turned out to be great.”
As great as the turnout was, there was an immediate response from some Georgia fans who were up in arms about the removal of the hedges. Other feelings about the match were influenced by Americans’ impressions of the sport.
“Even without the hedge issue there were plenty of people upset that soccer — a wussy, non-American sport — was going to be played on hallowed ground,” Lancaster said.
Then-Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley had to address the issue at length with the football season starting at the end of that month. The new hedges arrived before the start of the season.
To assuage the concerns of fans and locals, supporters argued the games would have positive results on the city. Hosting Olympic events was anticipated to bring money to the community and put the Classic City in the international spotlight.
However, Athens may have helped bring greater changes to women’s soccer, providing the USWNT with its first spotlight moment, years before the 1999 World Cup win.
“Most of the key players from that legendary ’99 U.S. team were also on the ’96 Olympic team,” Lancaster said. “So when everything really exploded with them winning the World Cup at the Rose Bowl three years later, I think those of us who were there in Athens for the gold medal game felt like we were sort of early adopters of the USWNT.”