Don't call it a comeback: Georgia State's new stadium comes with old Olympic history

In 1996, it held the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Randy Johnson pitched a perfect game there in 2004. Now Georgia State University seeks to build a new legacy into the former Turner Field.

John Bazemore/AP
Georgia State recently finished converting the former home of the Atlanta Braves and the site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games into a football stadium.

Call it the chameleon of stadiums.

From Olympic track and field to major league baseball to, now, college football, this place has undergone plenty of changes since it broke ground less than a quarter-century ago.

Welcome to Georgia State Stadium.

"It feels like a football stadium," said Panthers cornerback Chandon Sullivan, looking ahead to the next life for this ever-changing structure in the shadow of the downtown Atlanta skyline. "If I wasn't from Georgia, I would have no idea this was a former baseball stadium. They've done an amazing job with it."

Still, this new moniker will take some getting used to.

For most folks, the first name that rolls off the lips is Turner Field.

Or perhaps they remember that one glorious summer when it was known as Centennial Olympic Stadium.

"When you realize the iconic nature of this stadium, the history that's in this stadium ... it's a fascinating opportunity for us," said Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb. "It's transformational. It gives us a chance to take a football program that we're still trying to grow, we're still trying to develop, and we've got as nice of a facility as anybody."

After breaking ground in the summer of 1993, what emerged was the 85,000-seat centerpiece of the Atlanta Olympics. This is where Muhammad Ali steadied his trembling hand to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony, where Michael Johnson ran to glory, where Carl Lewis closed out a brilliant career by soaring to one more gold medal.

As soon as the Olympics were over, a hasty conversion turned the stadium into what it was meant to be all along: Turner Field, a 50,000-seat ballpark for the Atlanta Braves named after then-owner Ted Turner. A World Series was played here. An All-Star Game, too. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz pitched here on the way to Cooperstown. Randy Johnson pulled off that rarest of baseball feats: the perfect game.

When the Braves moved to a new facility in the suburbs this season, the stadium they left behind did something that rarely happens to discarded buildings in what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Atlanta:

It survived.

The Ted has morphed into Georgia State Stadium (and, don't get too accustomed to that name, either; the plan calls for a new corporate ID).

The stadium begins its new chapter as the 24,000-seat home of Georgia State's fledgling football program. This Sun Belt Conference team that has only been around since 2010 will try to carve out its own legacy. The first game is Thursday against Tennessee State.

"Some of the best athletes in the world came out here and competed," said Mr. Sullivan, who was born three days after the closing ceremony for the '96 Summer Games. "The history and tradition that's here, we're just hopeful we can start our own history here."

The stadium was built with metamorphosis in mind.

When Atlanta stunningly landed the 100th anniversary of the Olympics, organizers saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one brick-and-mortar stone. The Braves were grumbling about the need for a new park to replace aging Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, while the Summer Games needed a huge new stadium for its showpiece sport as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.

So, on the parking lot just south of the Braves' dated, cookie-cutter stadium, a revolutionary concept was born.

Half baseball park.

Half track and field stadium.

Not surprisingly, it was a rather odd-looking hodgepodge, certainly not in the mold of the classic Olympic stadium. The stands on the north side curved gracefully around the track but were merely temporary, designed to be taken down as soon as the games were over. At the south end, the permanent stands carried on beyond the finish line, then bent around sharply behind what would become home plate in an obvious baseball configuration.

The transition from Olympic stadium to Braves ballpark was cost efficient (just over $300 million in today's dollars) and downright seamless, clearing the way for the first pitch to be thrown roughly eight months after the torch was extinguished. Compare that with London's Olympic Stadium, which initially cost more than $700 million – and then required a three-year reconstruction, at an additional cost of more than $350 million, to carry on as a soccer stadium that could still be used occasionally for track and field.

The price tag for the latest renovation at Turner Field-turned-Georgia State Stadium was downright miserly by comparison, around $50 million. Also, it took only about seven months to complete the biggest phase of the project: building a new section of seats in what used to be right field, installing an artificial turf football field and new lighting fixtures, removing the dugouts and first few row of seats to improve sightlines, constructing a locker room for the Panthers to call their own.

"Our goal was real simple when we were able to acquire the property," Mr. Cobb said. "When people came in for a football game, they didn't look at it as a baseball stadium turned into a football stadium. The same way the Braves did when they went from the Olympics to baseball, we wanted people to say, 'Wow, this is an incredible football facility with a lot of history.'"

For now, there are no plans to remove the large section of unused seats beyond the former right field, a now-obscured area that included the Braves bullpen and the old Chop House restaurant. At some point, those stands could be converted into classroom or office space, but from the outside the stadium looks largely like it did during the Turner Field era.

In fact, there are plenty of remnants of its former lives, from the Hank Aaron statue in the plaza to the giant video board that once loomed over center field – now one of the largest in all of college football – to the tower holding the Olympic cauldron, still standing at the far edge of a massive stadium parking lot.

Over the next decade, Georgia State and its real-estate partners intend to turn the huge swath of asphalt around the stadium into dormitories, athletic facilities, offices, homes, and retail space.

That certainly seems appropriate for a place that's always changing, always transforming.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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