In '96 race, tortoise again beats the hare

Editor's note: This article was orginally published Sept. 18, 1990.

Tokyo -- You’d probably better take this sitting down. Find a chair. Take a cold drink of water. Brace yourself. Clear your head.

Citius, altius, fortius, Atlantius.

You have just become the parents of the Olympic Games. Not just any old Olympic games, but the 100th birthday Games. The 1996 Olympic Games, the centennial year of rebirth.

Senor Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, took his stance at the podium before a packed auditorium in the New Takanawa Prince Hotel, and a worldwide television audience, Tuesday night about 8:45 (Tokyo time) and let the world hear the news.

The IOC had made its choice. Not Athens, the most feared rival, for it was there the Games were revived in 1896; not Melbourne, the Australian city considered the best compromise choice; not Toronto, Atlanta’s North American rival; not Manchester, England; not Belgrade, Yugoslavia; but ATLANTA, county seat of Fulton, capital of the state of Georgia. After four ballots, it boiled down to Atlanta and Athens - the one in Greece, not the one in Clarke County - and Atlanta took the Greek capital on the fifth ballot, 51-35.

So once again it was proved that it ain’t over till it’s over, and in this case, until 86 fat ladies sang. Eighty-seven delegates were advertised, but one was missing for reasons unknown by this correspondent.

It has been a long, hard climb from zero to the top of the mountain for Billy Payne, the attorney and former Georgia football player who came up with this crazy idea and quarterbacked it from embryo to success. Final presentations had been made during the day, Atlanta leading off, and Payne verging on tears in his emotional pitch.

He probably cried again after the announcement, but you couldn’t tell from where I sat. Atlantans, here in droves, leaped to their feet, shrieking. So did several other portions of the building, but a stunned silence fell over the European and Australian delegations.

From Georgia, there were two governors; two mayors; an all-star cast of Atlanta’s business giants; the president of Georgia Tech, Pat Crecine; and even Vince Dooley, athletics director of Georgia, among the celebrants.

“Coca-Cola!” someone cried out in the peanut gallery of the section where I sat. Sure enough, the Coca-Cola people were outside, distributing Atlanta ‘96 Olympic pins. Throughout, though, Coca-Cola, which does 80 percent of its business outside the United States, has firmly maintained its neutrality.

Atlanta has pounded on its breast for several years, proclaiming itself “the world’s next great city.” If it was or wasn’t, this is one major brick in its foundation. It was Lord Kilannin, the Irishman, who said “80 percent of the delegates come here with their mind made up.” If that be so, that speaks volumes for the forthright, rather than clever, the down-home, rather than sophisticated campaign the Atlantans carried out, even to the Tokyo scene.

After making their in-person presentation Tuesday morning, Payne said that “we did everything we could. We can only hope it’s enough.” It was like a surgeon who pronounces the operation a success, but whether the patient lives or dies, you find out later.

The Games had played in Los Angeles in 1984, and this was considered Atlanta’s most serious drawback. “We tried to move Atlanta as far from Los Angeles as possible, ” he said.

It is possible that the Greeks shot themselves in the foot with their possessive approach, their brashness, their aggressiveness to the point of hauling in three Americans of Greek heritage to speak for them. When they ran a two-page spread in the Japan Times Monday, that caused considerable disbelief. If that wasn’t enough, then their press conference Tuesday morning may have been the final stroke.

“We didn’t come here to give you minutes of the meeting, ” Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis said.

In the hallway outside the interview room, the mayor of Athens and a member of the press got into a fist fight. Later, the Greek delegation called a second press conference to apologize for the first.

Maybe the damage had been done. Maybe there was no damage at all. Maybe it was Atlanta all the way, but, no, that can’t be true. Athens led on the first two votes and Atlanta got into the race only on the third, a 26-26 tie with Athens.

Well, the party’s not over. It’s just beginning. The game has been played, and played well. The race has been run, and the tortoise beat the hare again.