How Atlanta Became the Host City for the 1996 Olympic Games: Part 2, Winning the IOC Nomination


With the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) nomination secured, Billy Payne, Andrew Young and the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation (GAAF) turned their attention to the international bid. In May of 1988, Payne learned his competition for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) bid:  Athens, Greece; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Manchester, England; Melbourne, Australia; and Toronto, Canada.

Early in the international bid, Atlanta had two issues against them.  The first was that many Olympic officials felt it was too soon to award the Olympics to another American city since Los Angeles  hosted the Games in 1984.  The second issue was that the 1996 Games would be the centennial of the modern Games and many officials believed the natural host should be Athens.

Payne and his team quickly developed a plan to counteract these issues.  The plan centered on the diversity of the American population, the country’s regions and overall size, and the number of times the Games had been hosted on American soil—three (1904, 1932 and 1984) versus fourteen in Europe.  Also, Los Angeles was the only city in the world to bid on the 1984 Olympics and Payne argued that the IOC had not actually selected an American city for almost 60 years.

With the plan finalized, Payne reverted back to his personal touch strategy that worked so well in capturing the USOC bid.  Charles Battle and Robert Rearden Jr. began traveling to IOC members and international sports officials around the world to deliver personally Payne’s plan. Early visits were to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, Ecuador, Canada, Malta, and Mexico.  With Young’s participation in Atlanta’s bid and his international reputation, doors were opened to the GAAF volunteers that may not have been without his involvement.

As Atlanta’s international bid process unfolded, the GAAF began to receive support from various sources.  Federal, state, and local government began to provide financial support.  The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce offered the full support of its Atlanta Sports Council group to host amateur athletic events to strengthen a weakness noted by the USOC.  Atlanta would host over 30 such amateur events by the time the IOC awarded the Games to the city.

A group of 20 Atlanta officials attended the Seoul Olympics in 1988 in order to meet additional IOC members and garner further information about hosting an Olympics.  Once again, Payne employed his personal touch strategy by converting a traditional Korean house into an Atlanta home complete with a staff and southern menu. The house entertained IOC members daily for lunch and intimate dinners with the goals of developing friendships and strengthening communication.

While in Seoul, Payne and Young gave their first official presentation to the IOC Executive Board.  Payne emphasized that Atlanta felt an obligation to bring the Games to the east coast of North America and near the Caribbean, which had never hosted the Olympics.  Young spoke about Atlanta’s abilities as a potential host city and stressed that the most essential reason that he wanted the Games in Atlanta was to inspire youth.  The Atlanta contingent left Seoul having spoken to 88 out of the 90 IOC members and obtaining valuable information necessary to prepare the official IOC Bid.

Samaranch agreed to visit Atlanta in February 1989 and before his visit the GAAF met to assess its organizational structure, goals and strategies.  This meeting prompted the formation of a 14-member Executive Board and a new name, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).  Andrew Young became ACOG’s chairman; Billy Payne, the president and chief executive officer; Gerald Bartels, the president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, was named secretary; and Bob McCullough of Arthur Andersen Company took the title of treasurer.  An Advisory Council was also formed, representing a wide range of Georgians, to support the ACOG.  Not long after, the group announced its official Olympic theme, “Atlanta and the Olympics: Yes! Partners with the World!”

Samaranch’s visit to Atlanta went well and he praised Atlanta’s Olympic team for their work while speaking before the Georgia General Assembly.  He encouraged the ACOG to host as many IOC members as possible so that they could see first-hand Atlanta’s preparation for the Games.

As Samaranch flew back to Lausanne, the ACOG stepped up their efforts.  The group opened an office in midtown where they began the preparation of the Bid documents to the IOC that would be due in one year.  Through local sports experts, volunteer committees began to document how the city would handle the international requirements for each Olympic sport.

The Atlanta business community began to step up by offering free services to the ACOG and over 100,000 people expressed interest in volunteering for the Games even though the Games were still seven years away.  Atlantans began to embrace the Games in earnest.

Playing off the excitement, the ACOG began a public awareness campaign in July 1989. Billboards and banners sprang up all around the city.  With the international press in attendance, the ACOG implemented the Olympic Mile run during the annual July 4 Peachtree Road Race.  More than 40,000 people ran the in the mile run.

With Andrew Young’s words to the IOC Board in Seoul in mind, the ACOG focused on the city’s youth.  After the Road Race, the ACOG introduced the Olympic Day in the School (ODIS) Program.  The program offered curriculum guides to aid teachers with incorporating Olympic values into all subject areas.  The following spring the Georgia Olympic Day provided the opportunity for students from across Georgia to participate in academic and athletic competitions in the style of the Olympics.  Over the seven years of the program, more than one million students participated in the program.  ACOG members encouraged these students to write to IOC members detailing what the Olympics in Atlanta would mean to them.

In late August and early September of 1989, the ACOG unveiled their high-tech presentation tool at the IOC meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Developed with resources from Georgia Tech, the ACOG presented an interactive video that allowed IOC members to fly through three-dimensional areas of Atlanta with computer-generated models of existing and future venues.  This tool would later be credited as one of the reasons Atlanta secured the IOC nomination.  Also in San Juan, the ACOG presented a book to IOC members and the press that offered a description of Atlanta’s strengths, including details of each venue.  The book known as the XXVI Book (because the 1996 Games would be the 26th of the modern era) impressed the international contingent with its quality of design and information.  Payne and company began to produce a “wow” factor that other cities could not imitate.

After San Juan, the unprecedented number of 24 IOC members came to Atlanta to see what the ACOG was touting.  Atlanta volunteers ensured IOC members would not leave Atlanta without positive impressions.  The volunteers led the international delegates on facility tours, to dinners in private homes, to amateur sports competitions, to a cultural festival and to the 5K Run for the Bid. The brainchild of Payne, the 5k event began with IOC members riding an express MARTA train to the starting point.  Upon exiting from the train tunnel, 7,500 runners regaled the members with chants of “We want the Games.”  Most of the IOC members appeared emotionally touched by Atlanta’s enthusiasm for the Games.  The members gave the city high praise for its preparations to date and the overall enthusiasm of the city’s residents.

The ACOG and its volunteers continued to prepare the final Bid document and by February 1990 the completed Bid arrived in Lausanne.  The Bid came in five volumes all describing Atlanta as a modern city with lofty goals and expectations.  The high quality design and expert writing also told the story of the history, culture and pride of the South.  Volume I offered greetings from famous Georgians and Americans.  Volume II discussed Atlanta’s and the South’s history, details of the ACOG’s Cultural Olympiad plans, and a proposed torch relay involving all host cities of the modern Games.  In Volume III, detailed answers were given to the IOC’s requisite 19 questions, including the issues of facilities, financing and security.  Volume IV provided details of all of the sports venues and Volume V offered the ACOG’s plans for handling the media.

The ACOG’s Bid announced $1 billion would be spent on the preparation for and management of the Games, including $418 million of construction.  The construction tab would include an 85,000 seat stadium for athletics, a natatorium, a water polo stadium, a cycling venue, a shooting range and a marina in Savannah.  Also, dormitories for the athletes would be built at a cost of $60 million. The Bid also stated that revenue sources would include broadcast television rights fees, corporate sponsorships (think Coca-Cola), ticket sales, Olympic coins and other merchandise sales.  Additionally, the Bid stipulated that no taxpayer funding would be needed.

Over the next three months, the ACOG maintained it efforts to impress the international group of decision makers.  The group hosted the official site inspection visits by the IOC Study and Evaluation Commission, the Association of International Olympic Federations, and the Association of National Olympic Committees.  The ACOG shrewdly invited IOC members to Atlanta during the spring when the city’s natural beauty comes alive.

As summer approached, the ACOG could boast that Atlanta had now hosted scores of international amateur sports competitions over a two-year period, and gained the support and confidence of all levels of government and the city’s business leaders.  The city now had the infrastructure to handle the Games and the needed venues were well on their way to completion.  The IOC’s final decision would come in September, and the ACOG could only wonder if the members had done enough to gain the nomination. A total of 68 IOC members had visited the city and ACOG members had visited 85 IOC delegates in their countries.  What more could the ACOG do?

In mid-September, 1990, over 300 Atlantans and Georgians traveled to Tokyo for the ACOG’s final presentation and the IOC’s decision.  The group included 58 students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, called the Atlanta Dream Team.  Atlanta was the first of the six cities to present.  The hour long presentation included a film and original song, “The World Has One Dream,” and talks from Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Governor Joe Frank Harris, Andrew Young, and Billy Payne.  The consistent message was that Atlanta wanted and was ready to host the Centennial Olympic Games.

At the conclusion of the presentations, the IOC members cast their initial ballot.  Belgrade dropped out of the running after the first ballot, Manchester fell out of the running on the second ballot, Melbourne went home after the third, and Toronto failed to make the cut after the fourth.  That left Athens and Atlanta, and of course, Atlanta won the nomination after the fifth ballot.

Payne, Young and the GAAF/ACOG team of volunteers had achieved their goal:  obtaining the 1996 Olympics for Atlanta.  Payne’s personal touch strategy combined with Young’s influence and the meticulous attention to detail by GAAF/ACOG members could not be overcome by the other cities hoping to host the Games.  The Georgia Tech presentation technology and support from Atlantans from all walks of  life provided the icing on the proverbial cake.  Payne’s dream became a reality and the provincial town that embodied the New South would earn the right to sit in the pantheon of international cities.


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




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.


Muhammad Ali and Atlanta: A Love Affair for the Ages


The 1960s may arguably be the most tumultuous decade in American history.  The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the challenge of established cultural norms and mores converged to produce an explosion that changed America forever.  One man and one city epitomized this convergence in 1970 and afterwards a bond formed between the two that would last for decades.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, an 18 year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, won the gold medal in boxing’s light heavyweight class representing the United States in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  Four years later, Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.  Secretly, Clay had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali 18 days before the fight. When drafted by the United States government in 1967 to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali refused his induction into the army declaring himself as a conscientious objector on the basis of his religious beliefs. The United States government arrested Ali, found him guilty of draft evasion, and sentenced him to five years in prison.  This conviction compelled the-then powerful New York State Athletic Commission and the World Boxing Association to strip Ali of his boxing title.  Ali appealed the draft evasion verdict that would eventually be overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1971.  However for three years no city in the United States would sanction a fight involving Ali, and he could not fight abroad because the government would not let Ali leave while the case worked its way through the court system.  Ali’s fortunes would begin to change in 1970 when a New York corporate attorney, his father-in-law in Atlanta and a Georgia state senator conspired to set up a fight for Ali in Atlanta.

In a 2011 article in The Georgia Historical Quarterly by Paul Stephen Hudson and Lora Pond Mirza, the authors detail how the fight in Atlanta became a reality. Robert Kassell graduated from Emory University Law School and embarked on a career as a corporate attorney in New York. He also had an interest in promoting a fight for Ali.   Kassell consulted with his father-in-law, Harry Pett, who owned a spice business in Atlanta and a small sports promotion enterprise.  Pett knew he needed political help to get the fight sanctioned in Atlanta and had previously met Leroy Johnson, a Georgia state senator.  Johnson promised Pett that he would obtain a license for Ali to fight in Atlanta.

Although Johnson did not have the fame of other African-American legislators at the time, such as Julian Bond, he was “without peer in Southern black politics,” according to New York Times Magazine writer Stephen Lesher.  Johnson became the first African-American to serve in the Georgia legislature since the Reconstruction Era and earned a reputation for his ability to achieve political initiatives while in office.  In the late 1960s, Johnson assumed more political clout as a leader in the Atlanta Negro Voters League and worked closely with African-American businessman Jesse Hill, then vice president and chief actuary of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.  The two invested their money in a venture called the House of Sports, Inc., which promoted the fight.  Johnson later stated that his goal with the Ali fight was “to beat the system and say to the world that you cannot do this to a man just because of his color” (Hudson and Mirza, p. 44).

Johnson helped Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, the city’s first Jewish mayor, win the mayoral election by urging African-American voters to cast their ballots for Massell.  Johnson knew the mayor would support him in his efforts to secure the fight.  Massell had served on local draft boards and understood the laws protecting the rights of conscientious objectors.  Massell also believed in the notion that blacks and whites could work together to further the socioeconomic and political viability of the city.  The state of Georgia had no boxing commission at that time, so politics would decide the fate of an Ali fight in Atlanta.  Johnson secured Massell’s support by pledging $50,000 to fund a program that would pay people for giving information that led to drug arrests and convictions, a pet project of Massell.  With the city’s support, Johnson needed to obtain state support before the fight could be arranged.

Governor Lester Maddox had a reputation as a fierce segregationist.  Johnson met with Maddox and told him that Ali deserved another chance.  This appeal struck a nerve with Maddox.  Maddox’s son, Lester Maddox Jr. had recently been arrested and charged with burglary.  The judge in the case gave the governor’s son a second chance by allowing him to avoid jail time.  Maddox acquiesced to Johnson’s desire to stage an Ali fight in Atlanta.

With the fight officially set for October 26, 1970, the promoters for Ali initially approached current heavyweight champion Joe Frazier to be Ali’s opponent, but Frazier had a conflict.  However, Jerry Quarry, Ring magazine’s number one heavyweight contender, agreed to take on the rusty Ali.  Ali trained at Morehouse College to prepare for the contest with Quarry and worked his way to a trim, rock hard 213.5 pounds.

The fight took place with much fanfare on that fateful October evening at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium (now known as Georgia State University’s Dahlberg Hall), where both black and white patrons filled the facility.  African-American celebrities came to watch the re-birth of Ali’s career. The audience included Diana Ross, Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, and the Temptations.  Let the record state that Ali scored a technical knockout of Quarry after nine minutes of the third round, but the more important result from the evening was the formation of a bond between Muhammad Ali and the city of Atlanta.

The defeat of Quarry and the Supreme Court decision enabled Ali to return to a boxing career that would last into 1981, when he officially retired.  Ali returned to Atlanta in 1975 to help Mayor Maynard Jackson promote businesses owned by African-Americans in Atlanta.  The two squared off in a charity boxing match that ended when the mayor “knocked out” the reigning heavyweight champion.

When the city suffered through a string of child murders from 1979-1981, Ali offered his help.  The pressure was mounting for the capture of the serial killer. In 1981, Mayor Jackson held a news conference pleading for information from the public that would lead to an arrest.  The mayor offered a reward of $100,000.  Days passed with no new leads.  Ali noticed and called Jackson in the middle of the night and pledged another $400,000 of reward money.  A month later, Atlanta police found and arrested the killer.  While Ali’s money did not lead to the arrest, his magnanimous offer further demonstrated his love and appreciation for the city.

Before a fight in 1980 against Larry Holmes, Ali began showing signs of Parkinson’s syndrome.  He began experiencing vocal stutters and trembling hands.  Ali lost the fight by knock out, and according to Mike Hale in a 2009 article in The New York Times, the beating led to the further development of the disease.  Ali fought once more in 1981 losing a decision to Trevor Berbick.  In 1984, doctors officially diagnosed Ali with Parkinson’s, but it would be 1996 before Atlanta and Ali would share the headlines again.

Preparation for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta was entering the final stages.  Billy Payne, CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, needed to decide on someone to light the Olympic flame to begin the Games officially.  Evander Holyfield, former heavyweight boxing champion and local home-town hero, came to mind quickly.  When Payne suggested Holyfield to NBC executive Dick Ebersol, Ebersol countered with Muhammad Ali.  NBC held the television rights to the 1996 Games and Ebersol wanted someone with global appeal.

Ebersol gave Payne a convincing argument, stating that “…Ali may be, outside of perhaps the pope, the most beloved figure in the world.  In the third world he’s a hero.  In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and a fellow traveler.  To anybody young—just about—in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison” (Sports Business Journal, by Josh Ourand, May 18, 2015, p. 30).

In Payne’s mind, at the time, Ali was a draft dodger.  Ebersol countered that Ali was a man of conviction, not a draft dodger.  The decision process took about five months before Payne finally agreed that Ali was indeed the best person to light the flame.

On July 19, 1996, Holyfield ran the Olympic torch into Centennial Olympic Stadium and handed it to Janet Evans, an American Olympic swimmer.  Evans eventually handed the torch to…Muhammad Ali.  Ali’s appearance had been a heavily guarded secret between Payne and Ebersol.  Even NBC announcers Dick Enberg and Bob Costas did not know until Ali appeared on screen.  When the spotlight shone on Ali holding the torch, people were in awe: “You could almost hear a global gasp,” according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Steve Hummer.

Ali stood with the torch in his right hand, with his left hand clinched and shaking because of the Parkinson’s disease.  For a few anxious moments, Ali held the flaming torch next to the small plug that would send the flame up the long wire to the Olympic cauldron. The plug would not light.  Ali remained steadfast, undaunted.  Finally, the plug lit and the cauldron burst ablaze.  Ali had once again stood victorious before thousands of fans in Atlanta and millions more across the world.  Payne would later state that while he and Ebersol had put Ali back on the world stage, Ali helped put Atlanta on the world stage.  Ali and Atlanta had once again benefited the other.

From the fight with Quarry in 1970, to the charity fight with Mayor Jackson in 1975, to the reward money in the child murder cases in 1981, to the 1996 Olympics, Ali and Atlanta forged a symbiotic relationship and love affair that lasted until Ali’s death.  From all of us in Atlanta, rest in peace, Champ.