The 2012 Olympic Games begin this week in London.
My adopted hometown of Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, two years before my family even lived here. For as far away as those Centennial Olympic Games were from me at the time, living in Kingsford, Michigan, they may as well have been in any country.
But how amazing, reflecting now, that they were here. Some of the key downtown locales are now a few blocks from my own home. Tourists flock to Centennial Olympic park to take photos of the many flags with the point-and-shoot cameras. It has those water-shooting things in the ground, that sprout random bursts of water on kids and the occasional adult seeking to cool down in the summer heat. The giant metal torch stand outside Turner Field was part of my daily scenery during two years as a grad student at Georgia State University (GSU students park for free in the Turner Field Blue Lot).
I only learned last year, actually while at a quilt show displaying my own quilting work, that in fact, something quite unique was done in honor of the Games being hosted in Atlanta: 397 quilts were made by members of quilt guilds across Georgia, to present to each nation participating in the Games. Two were given to each country: one to the National Olympic Committee of the nation, and the second to the flag-bearer of each. The entire collection was only ever displayed once all together, at the Atlanta History Center in the months leading up to the Games; now they are owned by the recipients. This is one of my favorite things about this project, that it was not a huge effort that then wound up perserved perfectly in a museum. Hopefully, there are families, whose son or daughter came to Atlanta and bore their flag in 1996, who still use those quilts, or the athletes themselves look upon it and reflect back on those weeks, sixteen years ago, when they visited Atlanta, Georgia and competed in their sport against the most talented in the world.
A few cities have harnessed similar efforts, inspired by the Georgia Quilt Project initiative to make quilts as welcome gifts, including the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. That year, they made mini quilts for every single athlete. That was an early goal for the 1996 effort, until they realized they would need to make over 10,000 quilts to accomplish this.
Anita Weinraub, the chairwoman of this whole project, recorded an oral history with me last fall, when I was working on a paper about the motif and symbolism in the 1996 Olympic Games quilts for my material culture class. She said back then, when they began the project, there was stunning response from the many guilds and women who wanted to be involved, who wanted to make quilts to be able to participate in some small way in the Olympics coming to the American South. The quilts were completed between 1993 and 1995, with enough time to organize them all ahead of the start of the Olympics. The initial ides of 10,000, which would have put a quilt on the bed of every Olympian staying in Olympic Village, was impossible then. But, she said, with the feedback they received then, it would have far more likely to be accomplished with the networking tools quilters have today– the same social networks we all have. Given this task in the current era, it would have been another ballgame. It still overwhelms me to imagine that many quilts, though.
I’ve been told London is doing something similar, a quilts project, keeping this legacy alive. There is so much wonderful symbolism behind a quilt–traditionally given as gift to celebrate a special occasion. Anita and several other women who headed up the team that organized the Olympic Quilts Project reiterated to me the obvious analogy: the quilts themselves are patchwork, many pieces coming together to make a whole, just as we are when we gather every four years to celebrate athletic ability and human cooperation, kindness, and competitive spirit.
Click to see more of the Olympics quilts.