Main event: 1989 Olympic Festival a turning point for Oklahoma City

by Jenni Carlson Modified: July 20, 2009 at 6:07 pm •  Published: July 20, 2009
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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.


by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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