Legacy of the Olympic Games in Atlanta endures

Olympic believers put city’s charms, warts into global spotlight

The crowd gathered on the plaza of the newly renovated Underground Atlanta stood around nervously that day, waiting on news from half a world away. On the hastily erected screen, images flashed of International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch facing a packed Tokyo hotel ballroom.

It was Sept. 18, 1990, and the New South’s capital was about to become, at least temporarily, a world capital.

The 1996 Centennial Games, Samaranch announced, are awarded “to the city of,” there was a slight pause, “Atlanta.”

“We finally won something!” exclaimed an exuberant hospital housekeeper in Atlanta.

In that moment, “we” was an all-inclusive term that stretched from those who cleaned bedpans to Fortune 500 CEOs. It was a thrilling and thoroughly improbable victory earned by a motley group of civic boosters chasing a notion borne by Billy Payne, an old University of Georgia defensive end looking for a challenge.

It’s been 20 years since Atlanta sought and received the world’s attention and affirmation. The Greatest Peacetime Event in the History of the World, as Payne called it, came and went. A record 9 million tickets to Olympic events were sold. Billions of people worldwide watched on television and were made aware of Atlanta. The city got worldwide publicity that, a generation later, remains a double-edged sword as a legacy.

“How wonderful to dream an enormous, even outrageous, dream and see it come to life,” said Payne, who had chased the Games for three years and seven months and was bone tired. “It was not a sense of joy or success. It was a sense it was over. It was a total, complete physical and emotional decompression.”

But there was no time to decompress. Payne and company had an unforgiving deadline of five years and 10 months to pull off the $1.7 billion, 17-day sports extravaganza. They had to build stadiums, parks and dorms. They had to dole out hundreds of contracts and hire employees. They had to fend off the endless parade of grand plans to rebuild and re-engineer the city on the flood of money that was to flow into Atlanta.

‘Hard work, hot air’

Harvey Newman, a longtime Georgia State professor and author of “Southern Hospitality: Tourism and the Growth of Atlanta,” laughed when asked about the pursuit of the Games. “A historian friend said the city was built by hard work and hot air,” he said. “The Olympics were no exception to that.”

Payne’s story of his “vision” has become Atlanta lore. The real estate lawyer had just finished a campaign to renovate his church and needed a new pursuit. It was Feb. 8, 1987 when the idea of the Olympics popped into his head. He had never been to an Olympics but thought, why not Atlanta?

To get credence for his effort, he approached Andrew Young, the mayor at the time and a former U.N. ambassador.

“It was a crazy idea but the way it came to him,” said Young, who paused and laughed. “I’m a former preacher. I believe in God. I believe in that kind of stuff.”

Winning over IOC voters may be the most competitive of Olympic sports.

But Payne learned winning support wasn’t rocket science. “We realized people would vote for their friends,” he said. Payne and a core group called the “Original 9” (it grew to 300 going to Toyko, he said) set out to forge friendships, proclaiming a gospel of Southern charm, racial harmony and good old-fashioned commerce and logistics. First, they sold U.S. Olympic officials on the idea, then hounded the 90 voting IOC members across the globe.

“We aimed to have one personal contact with each voting (IOC) member,” Payne said. “We averaged seven visits.”

In 1999, a vote-buying scandal originating with Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Games caused Congress to examine Atlanta’s bid. Payne conceded then that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games made mistakes in being too “aggressive” in expressing friendship through gifts and trips to IOC members.

Young was more blunt. “That’s the way we’ve done business; that’s the way we’ve been a successful city,” he said.

‘Inferiority complex’

The Games were a “branding” opportunity for a city that has enthusiastically sold itself since it was a railroad village. Atlanta called itself “an international city” long before even considering the Olympics.

“Atlanta had an inferiority complex. It had to make the case as a world-class city,” said former Fulton County Chairman Michael Lomax, who often bumped heads with Payne during the buildup. “It doesn’t have to do that anymore. Atlanta delivered the goods.”

The Games brought momentum for some hoped-for urban renewal. The 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium where Muhammad Ali lighted the caldron to open the Games was reconfigured as a 50,000-seat ballpark for the Braves. Dorms built for athletes later pumped life into Georgia State University. And Centennial Park was carved out of 21 acres of abandoned blight downtown.

“It’s gorgeous: it’s a quiet place in the middle of the city where you can relax,” said Kelly VanDenburg, a Raleigh, N.C. resident in town recently for college football’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. The park begat projects later on, too, like the Georgia Aquarium, the new World of Coca Cola and a surge of condo and office building. Atlanta’s now a different place. There were 2.6 million residents in the 10-county metro area then. There are 4.2 million now.

Success is subjective. Atlanta’s Olympics were tagged the “Bubba Games” by the world’s media who lampooned the city when its bus drivers got lost and a collection of street vendors set up operations that were likened to a “third-world bazaar.” There was the fatal bombing in Centennial Park and, finally, Samaranch’s dig at Atlanta, declaring the games “most exceptional,” which might sound good to the uninitiated but in IOC-speak was akin to His Excellency holding his nose.

Pre-Olympic estimates of a $5 billion economic impact seemed overly optimistic as visitors often pinched pennies and many Atlanta residents fled town during the Games. There was no definitive study afterward, said Newman.

That’s besides the point, said Payne, who points out the privately financed endeavor ended with a small surplus. “I’ve never counted success by dollars or economic impact,” he said. “We put Atlanta on the world stage and did it in a positive way.”

‘Moment of triumph’

Don Rooney, curator of urban history at the Atlanta History Center, said some arguments never get settled.

“It’s all sort of arbitrary and subjective,” he said, walking through the museum’s Olympics exhibit. Rooney paused at a photo of Young reopening Centennial Park after the bombing. “That was a moment of triumph, not defeat,” he said.

MacAloon said such a small, upstart collection of outsiders likely will never win the Games again. The IOC now expects host countries to have government guaranties. Atlanta paying for the Games with private money broke the mold, he said, and then quickly became “the anti-model for the Games.”

“It’s called the ‘Atlanta Syndrome’ — the (host) committee is so busy gathering corporate or private money, they are not able to focus on operational matters at hand,” said MacAloon. Also, there was “the horrible, disgusting flea market downtown which shocked Olympic members. That’s the most pungent, shall we say, memory of Atlanta.”

But, he added. “Atlanta was, for ordinary people, a very successful Games.”

Many Atlantans agree. One of the thousands of bricks in Centennial Park’s walkways carries Walter Keiser’s name. Reached by phone last week, Keiser, now a retired engineer from Fayetteville, said he wanted to be in the thick of the once-in-a-lifetime experience. So he and his wife, Lynne, signed up for ACOG duty and joined the army of 40,000 who volunteered and won over hundreds of thousands of guests with can-do helpfulness. “It took every one of us to pull it off,” Lynne Keiser said.

Her job was to drive the Indonesian delegation. Her husband chauffeured Olympic swimming great Mark Spitz for two weeks. But the Olympics resulted in more than fond memories, he said.

“I think it puts a shining light on the city,” Walter Keiser said. “It tells the world we can take on any project and pull it off.”

Payne still gets approached by people about the Olympics. “Every day,” he said, “Every single day. They immediately remember their Olympics experience. And that’s pretty cool.”