OPINION: For every fuzzy feeling about ‘96 Games, there was a tug of war

Muhammad Ali lights the torch to launch the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)
Caption
Muhammad Ali lights the torch to launch the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)

Credit: AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

Dogged journalistic research has uncovered one of Atlanta’s oddest Olympic legacies: Shirley Franklin still owns one of the official full-body Izzy suits worn years ago at events around town.

Back in the windup to the 1996 Games, Franklin was hired as a senior policy adviser for the Atlanta Committee for the Games (ACOG), to make sure negotiations went smoothly with residents, city officials and those in surrounding localities. It was often a teeth-clenching gig. Communities often had demands of Olympic officials and suspicions of their plans. And just about all neighboring jurisdictions wanted a piece of a finite pie.

So, Izzy, the Games’ oft-maligned, bug-eyed mascot, was a thing of joy for the sometimes frazzled Olympic exec, whose job it was to stamp out fires or, preferably, prevent them. Izzy was warm and fuzzy, silly and fun. And the Olympics were games and games are supposed to be fun, right?

“It’s a highlight of my 50 years in Atlanta,” said Franklin, who five years later became the city’s first female mayor. Fittingly, she was sorting through old Atlanta Olympics T-shirts when I called.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the opening ceremony, and a lot of life has flowed since then. A whole generation has been born since a quavering Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch, and millions more have moved to and from the city since.

The story of Atlanta stealing away the Games from front-runners like Toronto and Athens has become a familiar tale, of a middle-aged former UGA football star, Billy Payne, dreaming up a crazy idea and in 1987 winning over perhaps the one man who could help him make it happen. That was then-Mayor Andrew Young, who had worldwide cred as a former U.N. ambassador and moral authority as a preacher and hero of the civil rights movement.

ExploreRead more about the Atlanta Olympics 25th anniversary
A quarter-century later, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin still has a life-sized suit of Izzy, the mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games. (Courtesy of Shirley Franklin)
Caption
A quarter-century later, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin still has a life-sized suit of Izzy, the mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games. (Courtesy of Shirley Franklin)

Credit: Courtesy of Shirley Franklin

Credit: Courtesy of Shirley Franklin

Franklin said Young was immediately hooked on the idea and told Franklin, then his top aide, that he was teaming up with Payne and they were throwing themselves into making a winning bid for the city.

“I asked Andy, ‘What are you going to do with all the political commitments you already have planned?’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘You do them. You can figure them out.’ "

So Franklin became the shadow mayor.

Atlanta was built on hard work, hot air, logistics and bluster — and winning the Games fell right into that blueprint.

For instance, Payne waved off doubts about the city’s brutally hot and humid summers, convincing the International Olympic Committee that the average summer temperature was 75 degrees. Payne later admitted, with a smile, “I didn’t say what time of day.”

AJC columnist Bill Torpy was one of many journalists covering the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. This was his badge for the event.
Caption
AJC columnist Bill Torpy was one of many journalists covering the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. This was his badge for the event.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

In September 1990, the city was awarded the Games and then the real work had to be done, kicking off six years of site disputes, design debates, construction bids, timetable delays, cost concerns and creeping flop sweat, all with an inflexible end-on date: July 19, 1996. That was the opening ceremony at the new 85,000-seat Olympic Stadium, one designed to be retrofitted to become the Braves’ new — and later abandoned — playground.

A lot has been argued recently about Major League Baseball yanking the All-Star game from Atlanta (actually from the Braves’ new stadium in Cobb County) because the state Legislature changed voting laws in reaction to President Donald Trump getting beat in Georgia. MLB just didn’t want the hassle surrounding their game and the nasty political fight. Some clutch their pearls and say, “Politics in sports, oh my.”

But politics has always been intertwined with sports.

In 1993, commissioners of the then-conservative and Republican Cobb County passed a resolution that condemned the “gay lifestyle,” saying it was incompatible with community standards. That spurred a year of protests, rhetoric and argument. Franklin tried to forge a compromise. None was to be found, so ACOG pulled the preliminary volleyball venue out of the county.

“It took a great deal of our time, so we moved it,” said Dick Yarbrough, a former BellSouth exec who was ACOG’s communications chief. The Games “became a megaphone for every special interest group out there. This kind of stuff makes the (International Olympic Committee) real nervous. We had to do something.”

ACOG caught hell from the Christian right, said Yarbrough, adding, “But they weren’t Christian, and they weren’t right.”

In the run-up to the 1996 Olympic Games, Dick Yarbrough, an Atlanta Olympic official, got to carry the torch near Atlanta. (Courtesy of Dick Yarbrough)
Caption
In the run-up to the 1996 Olympic Games, Dick Yarbrough, an Atlanta Olympic official, got to carry the torch near Atlanta. (Courtesy of Dick Yarbrough)

Credit: Courtesy of Dick Yarbrough

Credit: Courtesy of Dick Yarbrough

Another dispute that raged before the Games was the question of Georgia’s state flag, which then contained the Confederate battle flag. ACOG wanted nothing to do with it, and many Georgia residents and some legislators were offended by such reluctance.

“The state flaggers were probably some of the most objectionable people I had to deal with,” said Yarbrough, who was often the man caught in the daily controversy. The flag was ultimately pushed off to the side.

Yarbrough also had strong opinions about the city of Atlanta’s avaricious ways.

At one meeting, Yarbrough said a city official slammed his fist on a table saying, “What good is it to have the Olympics in Atlanta if you can’t make money?”

National humor columnist Dave Barry summed it up, saying, “downtown Atlanta has basically the same level of dignity, sophistication and grandeur as a Veg-O-Matic commercial. It looks as though a giant vacuum cleaner went around sucking up all the T-shirt, hat, souvenir and corn dog booths in all the county fairs in America and then spewed them out randomly all over the streets.”

But despite the shellacking, Georgians generally loved it. In fact, more than 50,000 people, mostly locals, volunteered for the effort. One such volunteer, Brian Luders, an accountant then living in Duluth, worked some drudgery gigs for the cause and was awarded with roles in both the opening and closing ceremonies.

In the opening ceremony, Luders was a minder for the Iraqi team, which consisted of one weightlifter who later defected. In that, politics seeped in.

“All the countries were alphabetical,” he said, “except the I’s and the J’s — Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan. They kept them separate because of tensions.”

Brian Luders (second from left), an Olympic volunteer, with the tiny Iraqi delegation to the 1996 Games. Weightlifter Raed Ahmed (left) later defected. (Courtesy of Brian Luders)
Caption
Brian Luders (second from left), an Olympic volunteer, with the tiny Iraqi delegation to the 1996 Games. Weightlifter Raed Ahmed (left) later defected. (Courtesy of Brian Luders)

Credit: Courtesy of Brian Luders

Credit: Courtesy of Brian Luders

Even something as now universally loved as Ali lighting the torch was controversial. According to published reports, former NBC executive Dick Ebersol pushed for Ali, but Payne worried that many Southerners still thought of him as a draft dodger. However, Payne relented on his misgivings.

How did Ali come to be? One person told me Ali’s people reached out to Atlanta businessman Mack Wilbourn and suggested the former champ, thinking it would give Ali, then suffering from Parkinson’s, some focus and a goal.

Wilbourn told me it was his brainchild, having met Ali at a party at his home. He said he suggested that Young write him a letter. Wilbourn said he didn’t hear anything else about the matter until Ali stepped from the tunnel at the stadium.

Young says he can’t remember the sequence of how it came to be. “I was in such a fog then,” he said.

Ali arrived in town the day before the opening ceremony and wanted to go out to get a haircut and some food at Rahim’s Seafood in Southwest Atlanta.

Young tried to persuade him otherwise, since Ali lighting the torch was almost a state secret. Finally, Young relented and drove Ali on his rounds, hoping word of perhaps the most famous man in the world wouldn’t leak out.

Somehow, in that pre-iPhone, pre-social media world, it didn’t.

And Atlanta was able to spring a surprise for the ages.

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