It is hard to believe it has been 26 years this week since the Centennial Olympic Games were in Atlanta. They began on July 19, 1996, and wound up Aug. 4. To refer to them as Atlanta’s Games is not entirely accurate. Competitions were held throughout the state, from Athens to Gainesville to Savannah and even one in Ocoee, Tennessee.
Most everyone knows the story today about how local real estate attorney and former UGA football star Billy Payne decided to obtain the bid for the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic Games. The general consensus was the event would be staged in Athens, Greece, which has been home to the 1896 Olympic Games.
Payne, who had never been to the Olympics, didn’t know when the selection was made or how, enlisted the help of a small group of friends to set out on what many — including me at the time — thought was a wild goose chase to win the bid for Atlanta. And he did it.
In my long life, I have met and have been associated with a number of remarkable people, but Billy Payne exceeds them all. He is one of the brightest and most driven people I have ever known and one of the most decent. Although I didn’t know him at the time — I joined the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games after Atlanta won the bid as managing director of communications and government relations — I became and still am fiercely loyal to him.
The Games themselves were extremely successful. More than 10,000 athletes set 32 world records and 111 Olympic records. We sold more tickets to women’s competitions alone than Barcelona had sold total tickets four years earlier. More than 209 million people watched the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games on television, which made it the most-watched event in television history at the time, and some 5 million saw the competitions in person, aided by 50,000 volunteers who gave new meaning to the term “Southern hospitality.”
Also, the Centennial Olympic Games were privately funded, meaning taxpayers were not left holding the bag once the Games were over, as has happened in a number of cities before and after Atlanta. The darkest moment was the evening of July 27, when a bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park. We had been assured by the FBI that while there was always the possibility of a random act of terror, the agency had the people and resources to quickly identify and apprehend the perpetrators. Eric Rudolph, who set off the bomb, eluded capture for five years until he was arrested climbing out of a dumpster by a rookie deputy sheriff in North Carolina.
In the meantime, poor Richard Jewell was the victim of a worldwide media feeding-frenzy. Ten thousand media representatives, all assured that he was the culprit and all trying to scoop each other. Jewell was completely exonerated. He turned out to be the winner. The media and the FBI were the losers.
That brings me to the biggest loser of all: the city of Atlanta. The city blew a golden opportunity to look like the great international city it claimed to be. Officials authorized an ambush marketing program aimed at our sponsors, even though sponsor dollars were helping ensure the city would be spared committing any tax dollars for the Games.
Mayor Bill Campbell’s sidewalk vendors program did nothing but clog city streets and crush the dreams of a lot of small businesses that bought into the scheme. The business community was afraid to speak up lest they incur the wrath of a volatile mayor who could make a racial issue out of a potato chip. The local media were better suited to cover a high school football game than something as complex as the Olympics.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the 1996 Olympic Games was a new career — mine. I was asked by a local paper to assess the city’s performance after the event was over. I was not kind for all of the reasons stated above. The column attracted national attention. I was asked to write another one, and then another one. As of this day, I have penned some 2,000 columns and am still swinging for the fences.
Twenty-six years have passed, and the Centennial Olympic Games are a distant memory. There have been six Olympiads since ours. But looking back on those 17 days in July 1996, I am proud to say I was a part of the best Games ever.