On 25th anniversary of Atlanta Olympics, two icons steadfast in how far city has come

Part of the pageantry and color of Opening Ceremonies Friday night, July 19, 1996.  (Cox staff photo/Allen Eyestone)  7/96

Credit: Cox

Credit: Cox

Part of the pageantry and color of Opening Ceremonies Friday night, July 19, 1996. (Cox staff photo/Allen Eyestone) 7/96

Here it is 25 years — a quarter-century disappearing in the rearview like a rest-stop exit — since Muhammad Ali’s unsteady hand lifted the steadfast Olympic flame on the night of July 19, 1996. Since gymnast Kerri Strug would go on to stick her landing on a leg and a prayer. Since a madman’s bomb ruptured an ideal. Since Atlanta hosted the world at play.

To two old men sitting in a den, remembering, all that still retains the patina of current events.

“It really isn’t that long ago, if you put it in perspective,” said one essential Atlantan, Andrew Young, who is 89.

“It doesn’t sound long to me at all,” agreed another, Billy Payne, the youngster, at 73, in this particular buddy movie.

AJC's Steve Hummer talks with Andrew Young and Billy Payne about the 25th anniversary of Atlanta Olympics. Video by Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne

The two sat for a long interview last month with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the approach of the silver anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. The men most responsible for bringing to life what began as a farfetched fantasy — once described by one northern publication as no more than a seed planted in a Dixie Cup — convened at Young’s south Atlanta home.

The setting spoke of a momentous life, walls practically sagging with African artwork and photos of Young in all his roles as civil rights icon, congressman, U.N. Ambassador, Atlanta mayor and not the least of his titles, chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Yes, for all the important work he has done, Young looks back on those Olympics as an equal partner to his legacy. Delivering the Olympics to Atlanta was, he said, “certainly as important as anything else I’ve ever done.

“This was the first thing that got totally beyond race and creed and color. It was an unspoken objective to create a family of humanity around us.”

The living history in the room spoke of an enduring impact of the 1996 Olympics, even as an entire generation has come of age since the torch was extinguished. The two elders of the Atlanta Games – Payne, ACOG’s president and CEO who birthed the idea as a crazy notion scribbled on a yellow legal pad, and Young, who lent Atlanta’s bid global legitimacy, a perfect pairing – remain unshaken believers in the lingering good done that summer.

And while echoing frayed and strained ideals in these contentious times, Payne and Young also got down to some good storytelling. Like one never-before-told tale of how the push for the Olympics temporarily left one of these foundational figures literally paralyzed by angst.

As the one-time chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, Payne has lorded over a membership of the wealthy and powerful. As a businessman he had ruled boardrooms. And as a long-ago Georgia Bulldogs offensive lineman, he still has clout, and has the eponymous indoor practice facility in Athens to prove it.

Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games representatives Billy Payne (middle), A.D. Frazier (right), and Andrew Young (left), the trio mainly responsible for bringing the 1996 Summer Games to Atlanta, officially disband the organization July 1, 1999 in a ceremony overlooking Centennial Park (REAR). (DAVID TULIS/AJC Staff)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

No, not a man easily cowed. Yet, in the days leading to the announcement of the winning bid for the 1996 Games, the full enormity of the effort wrapped around Payne like an anchor chain.

In the fall of 1990, as the Atlanta contingent was making its last push in Tokyo in advance of the International Olympic Committee’s big announcement there, it was faced with a new and vexing question: What are we going to do about Billy?

“About 36 hours before the vote, I suffered from an honest-to-goodness medical anxiety where I couldn’t stand up,” Payne revealed. “The thought hit me that I have led all these wonderful people here and what if we lose? And it crushed me.”

He went on: “They had to hide me away because they didn’t want anybody to see me. ... Different from where my wife was staying, they put me in a separate room in the hotel. Andy came in and sat with me and cried and brought me off the cliff so I could go in the next day and be a part of the presentation.”

One last service provided by Young, one last crisis averted. And the rest is history.

Muhammad Ali watches the wick that is about to ignite the Olympic Caldron during the Opening Ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games Friday, July 19, 1996 at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta.  (Allen Eyestone/AJC)

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Not everyone is around to tell the story of the Atlanta Games and their legacy. Two of the Atlanta Nine, the core group of volunteers who made the Centennial Games happen, are gone. Ali, who among other credits is the greatest opening-ceremony Olympic cauldron-lighter of all time, died in 2016. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the autocratic IOC leader who at the closing ceremonies famously damned the Atlanta effort with the faint phrase, “most exceptional,” rather than the usual “best ever,” died in 2010. Time remains undefeated.

Young moves slowly today, and stairs have declared a vendetta against him, but the mind remains as sharp as the pleats of a preacher’s pants. “I’m slowing down now. I get worn out on these damn Zoom calls. Everybody can get you at home,” he mildly complained. He still maintains an expansive worldview, though – consider the 25 oxygen concentrators his foundation recently donated to one area of India hard hit by COVID-19.

Ambassador Andrew Young in his home June 3, 2021, after talking about the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

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Payne, whose father passed down a suspect heart (Billy had a triple bypass at the age of 34), is lean and fit thanks to arising each morning at 5 to exercise. He partners with his son in a real estate investment firm called Centennial (as in Centennial Games) Holding Company.

They remain standing in a world constantly shifting beneath their feet. Delayed a year by the COVID-19 outbreak, the Tokyo Summer Games are scheduled to open Friday without spectators amid another surge of the virus. As Japan struggled with the pandemic, Young said was approached with the idea of Atlanta stepping in to hold these Games if the original host country could not accommodate them. “I said, ‘No, thanks,’” Young chuckled. “I wasn’t interested at all. It just didn’t feel right.” No, that idea never got close to the runway.

Between the summer and winter Games, 11 Olympics have played out since Atlanta. Oddly enough, Young has visited only one (London, summer 2012), and Payne has been to none.

Payne explained, “You’ll laugh at me, but I’m actually kind of shy. I don’t like going to those things.”

Billy Payne talks with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Steve Hummer on June 3, 2021, about the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. (Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne

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Credit: Tyson Horne

There is just no going back and trying to relive certain life moments, Payne figures. “I wouldn’t try to play football at Georgia again, either,” he laughed.

A cynical questioner wondered if it would be possible now, in a time of such divisiveness, to come together again for anything as, well, Olympian, as hosting the Summer Games. Here the embers of the idealism the two shared decades ago still glow.

“I’ve never known this country to be so divided in my 89 years,” Young began.

Payne interjected: “On the other hand, that seems to cry out for some common denominator that people would embrace and love, and as a consequence love each other. Because we were all pushing in the same direction.”

“That’s what the Olympics did for us,” Young said.

The Black son of a dentist from New Orleans knew nothing of the white son of a successful Atlanta insurance man until that day in 1987 when Payne came calling on the then second-term Atlanta mayor. Having spearheaded a successful fundraising drive for his church, Payne had gone looking for bigger challenges. And came up with a doozy. But no Olympic bid could go anywhere without the backing of the potential host city’s leadership.

It was a beginning fraught with doubt.

“I was scared,” said Payne, intimidated by Young’s considerable presence.

“Everybody was trying to protect me from Billy,” laughed Young. The consensus was that Payne’s idea was borderline crackpot, that Athens had a sentimental lock on the 100th anniversary of the Games it had spawned.

Turned out Payne found an eager audience in Young, who was all the more sold when Payne assured him the city would not be left with the ponderous debt that faced Montreal, site of the 1976 Olympics.

Payne turns to Young now and laughingly says, “You were all in? You should have told me that at the beginning.”

From that first tentative meeting, a powerful partnership was born. Two outsized personalities came together, lobbied together (at the conclusion of his mayoral term, Young came onboard with ACOG), laughed together, cried together and still are bound tightly by the Olympic rings.

When asked what he saw in Payne that convinced him to join the effort, Young chuckled and said, “Believe it or not a pure heart. He didn’t want anything. He wanted to do good.”

Billy Payne and Andrew Young with Olympic rings and Atlanta skyline. Photo credit: Greg Foster/special.

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Credit: special

Payne’s affections are pure, uncut. “With the exception of my father and my wife, this,” he said, nodding toward Young, “is the person I most love and respect in the world.”

“As great a speaker as he is, as great a diplomat as he was, this man’s a preacher,” Payne continued. “In every paragraph that he talks to anybody, there’s at least a message in one of those sentences. I learned that quickly. He inspired me not to give up, to set a high goal and to bust your tail. I was fortunate that I brought a work ethic to the process that mandated that whatever sacrifices were required is what we were going to do. We were not interested in second place.”

So in unison were they that neither man could recall even a middling disagreement over the entire run-up to the Games. “I really saw him as a spiritual partner,” Young said of Payne. “The only time there was tension was when Maynard (Jackson, who succeeded Young as mayor) took over from me, and he wanted to take over the Olympics and run it as a city event. That would have been a disaster, and I knew that. I don’t know how I got through that, but it never happened.”

Olympic questions great and small still percolate a quarter-century later.

Izzy, the official mascot of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia on cart waving at crowd, Thursday, July 26, 1996 as he is wheeled through Centennial Olympic Park. (Cox Staff Photo/Rick McKay)

Credit: Cox Bureau

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Credit: Cox Bureau

What the heck was Izzy? No, really. Still, all these years later, does anyone know what that amorphous blob of an Atlanta Olympic mascot was? Other than widely ridiculed.

Chuckled Payne, “It’s still a secret. We laugh about it, it was fun. Turned out that people laughed at it because they thought it should be something more tangible.”

Do they still feel the pain of the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park, that killed one and injured more than 100 eight days into the Games?

“I don’t. For me, it was a 48-hour tragedy,” said Young, reflective of the attitude of the time to return to competition and rekindle the Olympic spirit as quickly as possible.

“It was our saddest moment,” Payne said, “but the reopening of the park 48 hours later may be the most glorious moment of the entire thing because of the overwhelming positive response of the volunteers and the community.”

The two point to lingering benefits of the ’96 Games all around us. From the tangible: Like Centennial Olympic Park, the athletes’ housing that now houses college students, the basketball gym at Morehouse built for the Olympics, the Georgia Tech aquatic center, the twice reconfigured Olympic Stadium now staging Georgia State football. To the visionary: Atlanta ascending, finding its place in the world.

“It put Atlanta on the map as an international city, an Olympic city,” Young said

“I see it in everything,” he added. “First place, I keep count of the population.” In 1990, Atlanta’s metropolitan population was 2.1 million. In 2021, it’s at 5.9 million.

Even for someone who had been as consumed by causes as Young, the ’96 Games lit a personal flame.

“I was running out of dreams,” he said. “I had been through the civil rights movement, and this was the awakening of a new dream. It just caught everybody up.”

Twenty-five years later we are left to wonder what dreams might follow, dreams so big they overwhelm the partisanship, the tribal factionalism, the distrust that blankets us now. Dreams big enough for all to share.

On that subject, Payne practically takes to the pulpit.

“What’s of consequence here and what makes it possible in the future for our community – it’s the purity of the dream. The unselfishness of what we all wanted to accomplish. That’s what made (the Atlanta Olympics) possible and why people embraced it. I would say unequivocally, yes, there is another idea, another opportunity that somebody’s going to have that reinvigorates this great community that we live in.

“Instead of talking about our division, we need to go back to talking about how in civil rights and otherwise Atlanta was one of the great cities in the world, setting an example for everybody else. Well, that hasn’t disappeared.

“There’s going to be another Andy Young – well, I don’t know about that. But there’s sure to be another Billy Payne that will have the idea that reignites and reinvigorates this community. I’m certain of it. I hope I live to see it.”