It’s Atlanta! 30 years ago

Years after the historic announcement, we reflect on our city’s victory to host the Centennial Olympic Games.

As dreams go, this one seemed preposterous.

The Modern Olympics were reborn in Greece in 1896, so it followed that Athens should host the 1996 Centennial Games.

And Atlanta? Some International Olympic Committee members had thought Atlantic City was bidding.

But Andy Young could count votes. And by the time the Olympic world descended on Tokyo 25 years ago this month to select the 1996 host city, the former mayor counted 51 – plenty.

Young could remember the moment three years earlier when his secretary told him someone was waiting to pitch the idea of hosting the Olympics.

“That’s all I needed,” Young recalled. “Someone trying to sell me on a big idea that would leave the city about $2 billion in debt.”

Billy Payne hadn’t thought much about the downside – he never did. Inside the bored middle-aged lawyer dwelled a UGA football player hungry for a quest.

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As Young listened to Payne, his skepticism faded.

“The Bible talks about the pearl of great price – sell all that you have and seek the pearl of great price,” Young later recalled. “That’s what he did. … And you don’t do that if you don’t believe it can happen.”

For three years, Young, Payne and the others believed it, too. They traveled millions of miles, stalked hotel lobbies around the world and made friends of IOC members.

And so it came down to this, in a hushed Tokyo convention hall.

Soon, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch was at the podium, ruffling some paper.

“The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympics to the city of … Atlanta.”

It took five ballots to secure 51 votes.

Nothing since has been the same.

Bert Roughton Jr. is managing editor/senior editorial director of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.