Clay Bennett wondered sometimes what he’d gotten himself into. He was leading the charge to bring a monumental event to Oklahoma City. The sports scene in his hometown had never seen anything like it, and there were moments he questioned if it would come together. Would fans support it? Would corporations back it? Would success follow it? "I think I was clearly in over my head,” Bennett said, laughing. How things have changed since the 1989 Olympic Festival. Then, the NBA was but a glimmer in Oklahoma City’s eye, but 20 years ago this week, a 38-sport, 13-day extravaganza came to town. The festival was held in non-Olympic years to bring the best American athletes together for Olympic-style competition. Oklahoma City had never seen anything like it. Back then, the All-College basketball tournament was a staple and the Big 12 baseball tournament had been coming to town for more than a decade. But Oklahoma City didn’t have the steady stream of national and international events then that it does now. National championships? College regionals? Conference tournaments? The NBA? Puh-lease. "We just didn’t think that big,” said Tim O’Toole, who was the festival’s director of operations. "It was just a whole different mindset.” The Olympic Festival changed Oklahoma City. When the event was awarded to the city in late 1986, the entire state was locked in the grips of the oil bust. Morale was low. Concern was high. Amid that backdrop, Bennett landed the job of executive director of Oklahoma Centennial Sports, the non-profit organization that oversaw the festival. He had long considered a business career in sports. Owning the Dallas Cowboys had been his boyhood dream. But after college, he started working for his family’s business. He focused his attention on window and door manufacturing but always kept an eye on the sports world. The Olympic Festival changed Bennett. It provided him a way in. He landed the job of executive director of Oklahoma Centennial Sports, the non-profit local organizing committee, and for more than two years, he worked to make OK ’89 a reality. He raised funds and solicited volunteers, managed logistics and secured venues, developed plans and negotiated deals. Bennett had others helping him with the work, but his hours were long and his concerns were high. Amid all of that, though, he realized his passion — the business of sports. And when the festival became a rousing success, shattering all sorts of attendance records and nearly breaking the festival record for revenue, Bennett, then 29, realized that he could live his passion in his hometown. "I felt at the time and felt more clearly in retrospect that the success of the Olympic Festival was a bit of a turning point for the city,” Bennett said. "It was a bit of a validation — ‘We can do these things. We can do them well.’ "It was much like what we’ve been through in bringing the NBA to Oklahoma and Oklahoma City.” What happened 20 years ago this week made Oklahoma City a player on the national sports scene. Ditto for Clay Bennett. "I think it was probably significant for him just from the standpoint that ‘I can do these type of things,’ ” said O’Toole, now president and general manager of Oklahoma State Fair Inc. "Too, it kind of gets in your blood.” Who knows what might have become of Oklahoma City’s sporting future had the Olympic Festival never come to town? Perhaps it would’ve still included an NBA team. Maybe that kind of growth was always meant to be. But O’Toole is reminded of the motto adopted by OK ’89 — "Winning a Place in the World.” "How prophetic,” he said.
On Pages 10-12B: The venues, some notable competitors, and memories on the 20th anniversary of the Olympic Festival