For the first time in 27 years, Olympic-style track and field competition returned to the city of Atlanta and Centennial Olympic Park.
But it was generations past, present and future that again made Atlanta the epicenter of track and field for a weekend.
The inaugural Adidas Atlanta City Games took over downtown Atlanta on Saturday, as runners and athletes of all ages and skill levels ascended upon what Atlanta Track Club President Rich Kenah calls Atlanta’s “Olympic legacy facility.”
Aspiring youth athletes kicked off the afternoon events with pole vault and 100-meter hurdle events, setting the stage for the professional track and field stars, including 12 Olympic medalists from all over the world.
The weekend set the stage for the future generation to look up to the current one, Kenah said.
“I’m a big believer in the sports and the personalities in it being inspirational and aspirational tools for young kids,” Kenah told the AJC. “We’re trying to bring the best of all generations (here). A young kid needs to see themselves in a star.”
The unique setting was reminiscent of the 1996 Olympic Games, featuring a specially built elevated track that ran directly through the park for the sprint competitions.
Youth track clubs such as Pole Vault Atlanta, ATL Zoom Athletics and organizations from all over the state featured their best young athletes in the early afternoon, which served as a precursor for the professionals in the evening.
However, the events kicked off much earlier in the morning with the Run With Maud 5-kilometer race, which featured more than 4,000 runners from all over the country and beyond.
The race raised over $200,000, with proceeds going to the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation, which supports the mission of providing mental health resources to young Black boys.
In between the youth and the professional competitions was the Adidas Running City Mile, which featured waves of all age groups.
David Wilkes, 63, is a member of the Atlanta Track Club and finished the mile in six minutes, one second. Although he said he was shooting for under six minutes, he noted that the event could have a positive, lasting impact on the community in Atlanta.
“It does a lot,” Wilkes said of the Atlanta City Games. “If you notice, when the younger kids were running, the families were here. It just encourages them to keep supporting their children. That’s the key, to keep them engaged. Keep them active.”
Behind the scenes, the vision of the games came to fruition as recently as last year’s The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race.
Jennifer Thomas, the vice president of global marketing for Adidas, said she remembers standing on the street in July envisioning what the event could look like.
“It’s amazing watching it come to life,” Thomas said. “Atlanta is a phenomenal city. A great running city. We wanted it to be a running festival. People can stay all day and make it a family event.”
Several professional athletes with Atlanta ties were on display in the evening.
Gabby Thomas, who was an individual bronze medalist in the 2020 Olympic Games, competed in the 150-meter race. Thomas was born in Atlanta and lived here until she was 11, when she moved to Massachusetts.
Allie Wilson hails from Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and went to Monmouth University, but she trains locally with the Atlanta Track Club. Early in the evening, she finished the mile in third place, with a time of 4:43.19.
Wilson said that the games were unique from her perspective primarily because street races aren’t particularly common. She did, however, enjoy competing in a familiar place.
“To have it in Atlanta in such a epic, monumental spot where the (1996) Olympics were, in front of the rings and all that, it’s special,” Wilson said. “It’s cool to be an athlete who trains here and to be able to be a part of that.”
Generations past also were featured, as a number of retired Olympic and professional athletes stopped by to check out the action.
Those in attendance included the likes of former star and Morehouse College graduate Edwin Moses, six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joiner-Kersee and Gail Devers, who, of course, won gold in the 100-meter race in Centennial Olympic Park in 1996.
However, it wasn’t only local athletes who walked away from the event impressed. Hobbs Kessler, who competes professionally for Adidas, finished the men’s mile with a time of 4:03.64, just a hair behind the winner, Sam Prakel (4:03.40).
Kessler, who is from Ann Arbor, Michigan, said he didn’t get to experience anything like the Atlanta City Games when he was younger and would love to develop a similar event in his hometown.
Ajeé Wilson won the women’s 600-meter race, finishing with a 1:27.00. Wilson, like Kessler, has no ties to the city, but noted that the track and field presence has grown, and events like the Atlanta City Games were great for the community.
To everyone involved in the day’s events, the notion was that the games not only were a continuation of the city’s Olympic history, but also a catalyst of what’s to come for sports in the city of Atlanta.
“I didn’t realize how much of a running city Atlanta was,” Wilson said. “I’ve definitely started to regard it as that (now).”
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