The world of sports turned its eyes to Atlanta for 17 days, when former boxing champ Muhammad Ali, top, thrilled the nation on opening night, left. Michael Johnson, above, was unbeatable in the 200 and 400 meters, and little Kerri Strug, right, was swept up in the U.S. gold rush.

FACES OF THE GAMES

It took eight years, an ill-fated Reebok ad campaign, a giant heartbreak and 8,824 points, but now we finally know the answer. Dan O’Brien is the world’s greatest athlete. On a night that will forever be remembered as Michael Johnson’s, O’Brien stole a little slice of the spotlight by becoming the first American in 20 years to win the Olympic decathlon.

Michelle Kaufman

Aug. 1, 1996

He glanced at his mark in the sand, measured it with his eyes against the board, then fell to the ground as the crowd erupted and the scoreboard flashed what he had been waiting for: He was in the lead. And when Carl Lewis leads, nobody catches him.

Mitch Albom

July 29, 1996 WINNING COMBINATIONS

You wanted Olympic drama? You got it. The U.S. women’s gymnastics team clinched its first team gold medal Tuesday night on the severely injured ankle of giant-hearted Kerri Strug, an 18-year-old whose gutsy performance on the final vault of the evening will go down as one of the great moments of these Games.

Michelle Kaufman

July 23, 1996

(Venus Lacey) is not a star. She is not a starter.She is a survivor and a winner, a woman who, at 29, has overcome the physical and emotional traumas of her life to reach the pinnacle in women’s basketball.

Charlie Vincent

July 21, 1996

History was made twice on a muggy Thursday night when the United States beat China, 2-1, to win the Olympic women’s soccer gold medal. The Sanford Stadium crowd of 76,481 is believed to be the biggest to attend any women’s sporting event, and the Americans won the first Olympic title in the sport.

Eric Sharp

Aug. 1, 1996

U.S. fans had to love the score at match point in the second set: USA 11, USA 8. Californians Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes loved it even more. One last hit by Kiraly gave volleyball’s leading player a third Olympic gold medal and Steffes a first.

Eric Sharp

July 28, 1996 MICHIGAN CONNECTION

The crowd of 14,000 chanted”USA”and waved patriotic posters as University of Michigan swimmer Tom Dolan raised his gold medal for all to see. . . .

Eric Namesnik, who trains with Dolan in Ann Arbor, was 50 meters from winning the 400-meter individual medley. But somehow, some way, just when Namesnik thought he was about to pull off the upset of his career, Dolan kicked his freestyle into high gear and jammed the thorn right back into Namesnik’s side.

Dolan touched in 4:14.90, giving the United States its first gold medal of the Olympics.

Michelle Kaufman

July 21, 1996

Add up the miles Connie Paraskevin-Young, above, has ridden a bicycle, and they would form a road through five Olympics and past the moon. Which made it all the more ironic when her dream of one last Olympic cycling medal failed by 15 inches in the women’s sprint. . . . After she finished, she did a final, melancholy lap as the crowd roared and a man yelled”Thank you, Connie!”

Eric Sharp

July 25, 1996 FACES OF THE GAMES

Her right hamstring wrapped in bandages, Jackie Joyner- Kersee ignored the sharp pain and sprinted down the runway as fast as her tired 34-year-old legs would take her. She leaped, her arms windmilling, and landed 22 feet, 11 3/4 inches later. The crowd roared. Third place.

It wasn’t exactly what the first lady of track had in mind, but in a way, the bronze medal Friday meant more than her golds from the 1988 and 1992 Olympic heptathlons and the 1988 long jump.

“Tonight was really special because this one I really had to work for,”Joyner-Kersee said.

Michelle Kaufman

Aug. 2, 1996

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