How Atlanta Became the Host City for the 1996 Olympic Games: Part 1, Capturing the USOC Nomination

 

 

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With the immortal words from International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch on September 18, 1990—“The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of…Atlanta.”—Atlanta had officially won its bid to host the centennial of the modern Olympic Games.  Billy Payne’s vision had become reality.  He had help, and plenty of it, from a wide assortment of business and political leaders and a throng of volunteers.  The journey was long and arduous but certainly worth it in the long run.

Payne, a real estate attorney, first thought of bringing the Olympic Games to Atlanta in 1987.  He believed that if he had the right help, Atlanta could secure the Games.  He summarized his thought process this way, “If you believe that if you surrounded yourself with enough talent, enough good friends, enough people willing to push or pull all in the same direction, there can be absolutely no limitation on what you can achieve.”

As a first step, Payne formed a non-profit group called the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation (GAAF).  This group would be tasked with bringing the Games to Atlanta. Payne also persuaded fishing buddy Pete Candler to join him.  Candler’s relatives played an instrumental role in the founding of the Coca-Cola Company.  Payne then took a leave from his law profession to become a full-time volunteer with the GAAF and also borrowed $1 million from friends using real estate holdings as collateral.  In a short amount of time Payne convinced other friends to join him as volunteers for the campaign.  All had strong leadership skills, influence, and most importantly, contacts, which could aid the effort.  The group became known as the Atlanta Nine.  Besides Candler, the group included Horace Sibley, a partner with powerful law firm King and Spalding and one who also had strong ties to Coca-Cola; Ginger Watkins, known for her work as a charity fund raiser and with the Junior League; Linda Stephenson, also known for her work with the Junior League; Cindy Fowler, who managed an event-organizing business; Tim Christian, a construction company executive; Charles H. Battle Jr., a gregarious Atlanta attorney; Charles Shaffer, another attorney with King and Spalding; and Bobby Rearden Jr., an Atlanta businessman.

As the group moved forward, they realized they needed someone who knew Atlanta but had the respect of influencers nationally and internationally.  Andrew Young, then the mayor of Atlanta, could not have been a better choice.  People from across the globe respected Young for his work as a United States congressman and Ambassador to the United Nations.  He also was a revered leader of the Civil Rights Movement and former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Young endorsed the GAAF proposal for the Games and would later prove instrumental in winning international support for the Atlanta bid.

With his team in place, Payne directed his attention to the first hurdle: the official United States Olympic Committee’s (USOC) endorsement of Atlanta as the United States representative in the battle for the Games.  Payne developed a personal touch strategy for the GAAF that would carry through the USOC bid process and the international process involving the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  The first example of Payne’s strategy came in September 1987 when GAAF members hand-delivered the formal bid to the USOC offices in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The other 13 United States cities bidding on the Games, including Nashville, San Francisco and Minneapolis mailed their bids.  While there Payne and his associates gave their presentation to the USOC board.  The GAAF produced a video entitled “Live the Dream,” which focused on Atlanta’s enthusiasm for the Games.  The video also delineated Atlanta’s strengths:  the international airport; existing sports venues; the construction of new venues such as a stadium for athletics (track and field), the Georgia Dome for basketball and gymnastics and a natatorium on the campus of Georgia Tech; existing facilities for the athletic village; over 60,000 hotel rooms; an extensive rapid rail and bus transportation system; experience in handling large amounts of people because of Atlanta’s extensive convention experience; and private funding sources through corporate sponsors, television rights, and ticket sales.

Payne’s personal touch strategy manifested itself again when the USOC sent 100 voting members to Atlanta in January 1988 before the official USOC Site Selection Committee’s visit.  The GAAF entertained the voting members in an Atlanta house, where they experienced an elegant and intimate dinner.  When the Site Selection Committee visited in February, the GAAF took the group to all existing facilities, the different sites for the new venues, meetings with local political leaders, and a lunch hosted by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce attended by prominent business leaders.  Upon leaving Atlanta the Committee told the GAAF that they were impressed with the group’s attention to detail, the overwhelming business and community support, and the overall enthusiasm for the Games.  The only negative cited was the city’s limited amateur athletic experience.

The possibility existed that the USOC would not recommend any city for the 1996 Games because Los Angeles hosted the Olympics in 1984 and the USOC was unsure if any American city could get the international nod so soon after LA.  However in March, the USOC moved forward with the process and cut the field from 14 to 2—Atlanta and Minneapolis.  Payne and the GAAF began preparations for the final presentation to the USOC Executive Board in April in Washington, DC.

The GAAF intensified their lobbying efforts.  They mailed each board member the formal Bid Proposal, hosted members in Atlanta to view competition sites, and met with national and international sports federation officials.  If the GAAF could not meet personally with board members, the group wrote personal notes, made phone calls or both.

Payne further exhibited his personal touch strategy by renting the famous Kalorama mansion in Washington.  By this time, Andrew Young was fully invested in securing the Games for Atlanta, and he, Payne and other GAAF volunteers greeted USOC board members in the mansion while a 10-piece string ensemble entertained them.  The next day, Young, Payne and Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris reiterated Atlanta’s strengths to the board.

The USOC board carefully considered the city’s organizing ability, enthusiasm for the Games, venues, hotels, large airport, rapid transit system, and the capability of handling thousands of people for the duration of the Games.  These attributes pushed the city ahead of Minneapolis and compelled the USOC board to award their nomination to Atlanta.  Young, Payne and the rest of the GAAF had cleared the first hurdle.  Now they must convince the international community that Atlanta would be a worthy host for the centennial of the modern Olympic Games.

 

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