Remembering the 20th anniversary of Atlanta's Olympic moment

It was Sept. 18, 1990, and the city's attention was riveted on Tokyo, where International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch was preparing to announce the site of the 1996 Summer Games. And the choice was down to two: Athens and Atlanta.

Atlanta was considered the underdog. It was the centennial anniversary of the modern games, and Athens, birthplace of the Olympics, was the obvious choice. Atlanta's bid, which began in 1987 as the unlikely dream of local attorney Billy Payne, was always a longshot and made more unlikely by the fact that the U.S. had just hosted the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles.

But Georgia still had high hopes, a fact reflected in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom, where editors were holding the Journal’s first edition past deadline to carry news of the big announcement.

Two different front pages had been prepared – one announcing Atlanta as the winner and one naming Athens. In the press room, there was a plate for each page, and edition editor Frank White was waiting by the phone for word on which one to use.

At approximately 7:47 a.m. Atlanta time, Samaranch stepped to the podium at the New Takanawa Prince Hotel and uttered the words that would change our city forever: “The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of . . . Atlanta."

Journal news editor Tom Oder called White in the press room and told him to go with the page that carried one of the most famous headlines in the AJC’s history. The headline, written by Oder, said simply, “It’s Atlanta!”

And the party began. Fireworks exploded at Underground Atlanta, where strangers embraced in a giant early morning party. The euphoria Atlanta felt was unique in the city’s recent history.

AJC Managing Editor Bert Roughton, who was then a reporter covering the announcement in Tokyo, recalls "struggling through the crowd in that massive ballroom in Tokyo to get to the Atlanta people after the room exploded with Samaranch’s announcement."

Roughton got quotes from Payne and other officials and ran out to file his story for the Journal's next edition. "In the hallway, I encountered an International Olympic Committee member from South America who smiled at me broadly and said something that has remained with me to this day: ‘So, at last the dog has caught the car. So now what?'”

Payne, the man most responsible for bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, remembers the day vividly.

“It seems like it was yesterday,” Payne told the AJC on Friday. “Time just passes so quickly.”

Payne said the main thing he felt in Tokyo that day wasn't joy, it was “total, complete, almost indescribable exhaustion.”

“The process to get to that particular moment and all the stress associated with it for so many years,” he said. “Then you mix in the emotions of the moment. You had a sense that the whole city and state was relying and depending on you to hopefully bring home good news. It was certainly the most physically and emotionally draining moment of my life.”

Payne said that as Samaranch began his announcement of the winning city, “I was honestly prepared for him to say anything – Athens or Melbourne or Toronto – because I knew that whatever that word was, it would mean that it was over, and that there would be resolution to those three years.”

Payne said that when Samaranch declared Atlanta the winner, “it was almost like, ‘what did he say?'”

Payne said he relives the emotions of Sept. 18, 1990, “every time I see my friends who were so instrumental in getting us there and leading us to such a great result. And that’s several times a week I will run into them and you immediately associate that with the moment."

Atlanta's celebration soon died down as Olympic organizers began the herculean task of actually staging the games. The euphoria of the announcement day was never matched by the games themselves, which were marred by the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park and criticism over what many observers viewed as excessive commercialism.

But for one day, at least, it WAS Atlanta. As the Journal’s legendary sports columnist Furman Bisher wrote, the tortoise had beaten the hare. And the AOC’s Charlie Battle might have been speaking for the entire city when he summed up his feelings: “I'm excited. I'm elated. I'm shell-shocked. I can't express it. I'm at a loss for words."

Staff writer Mike Morris contributed to this article.

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