There was a tug of war for every fuzzy feeling about the ’96 Games

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The story of Atlanta stealing the Games from front runners like Toronto and Athens has become a well-known story where a former middle-aged UGA soccer star, Billy Payne, dreamed a crazy idea and maybe won the only man who could him in 1987 help with. That was then Mayor Andrew Young, who enjoyed worldwide renown as a former UN ambassador and moral authority as a preacher and hero of the civil rights movement.

ExploreRead more about the 25th anniversary of the Atlanta Olympics
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A quarter of a century later, former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin is still wearing a life-size suit of Izzy, the mascot of the 1996 Olympics. (Courtesy Shirley Franklin)

Photo credit: Courtesy Shirley Franklin

Photo credit: Courtesy Shirley Franklin

Franklin said Young was instantly enthusiastic about the idea and told Franklin, his then-advisor, that he teamed up with Payne and they pounced on making a successful bid for the city.

“I asked Andy, ‘What are you doing with all of the political commitments you’ve already planned?’ She remembered. “He said, ‘You do it. You can find out. ‘ “

So Franklin became the shadow mayor.

Atlanta was built on hard work, hot air, logistics, and noise – and winning the Games fell right within that blueprint.

Payne, for example, brushed off doubts about the city’s brutally hot and humid summers and convinced 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 Atlanta Olympics.  This was his badge for the event.
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AJC columnist Bill Torpy was one of many journalists covering the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. This was his badge for the event.

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

In September 1990, the city was awarded the contract for the games and then the real work had to be done: six years of construction disputes, planning debates, construction offers, timetable delays, cost concerns and creeping flop sweats, all with an inflexible end. Date: July 19, 1996. That was the opening ceremony in the new Olympic Stadium with 85,000 seats, which was to be upgraded to the new – and later abandoned – playground of the Braves.

There has been a lot of controversy lately about Major League Baseball ripping off the Atlanta All-Star Game (actually from the Braves’ new stadium in Cobb County) because state law changed electoral laws in response to President Donald Trump was beaten in Georgia. MLB just didn’t want the anger over their game and the nasty political battle. Some clutch their pearls and say: “Politics in sport, oh my god.”

But politics has always been closely linked to sport.

In 1993, commissioners from the then Conservative Republican Cobb County passed a resolution condemning the “gay lifestyle” saying it was inconsistent with community standards. That led to a year of protest, rhetoric and argument. Franklin tried to compromise. No one could be found, so ACOG pulled the temporary volleyball court out of the county.

“It was taking a long time, so we postponed it,” said Dick Yarbrough, a former BellSouth executive and chief communications officer at ACOG. The games “became a megaphone for every interest group out there. Things like that make the (International Olympic Committee) really nervous. We had to do something. “

ACOG got hell on the Christian right, Yarbrough said, adding, “But they weren’t Christians and they weren’t right.”

In the run-up to the 1996 Olympics, Dick Yarbrough, an Atlanta Olympic official, was allowed to carry the torch near Atlanta.  (Courtesy Dick Yarbrough)
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In the run-up to the 1996 Olympics, Dick Yarbrough, an Atlanta Olympic official, was allowed to carry the torch near Atlanta. (Courtesy Dick Yarbrough)

Image Credit: Courtesy Dick Yarbrough

Image Credit: Courtesy Dick Yarbrough

Another dispute that raged before the Games was the question of the state flag of Georgia, which at the time contained the Confederate flag. ACOG wanted nothing to do with it, and that reluctance offended many Georgia residents and some lawmakers.

“The state flags were probably some of the most offensive people I have dealt with,” said Yarbrough, who was often the man involved in the daily controversy. The flag was finally pushed aside.

Yarbrough also had a strong opinion of the city of Atlanta’s greed.

At one meeting, Yarbrough said a city official pounded a table with his fist and said, “What’s the use of having the Atlanta Olympics 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 like a giant vacuum cleaner was running around, sucking up all the t-shirt, hat, souvenir and corndog stalls at all the fairs in America and then spitting them randomly across the streets. “

But, despite the shellac, Georgians in general loved it. In fact, more than 50,000 people, mostly locals, have volunteered for the effort. One of those volunteers, Brian Luders, an accountant who was then living in Duluth, did some drudgery for the cause and was awarded roles at both the opening and closing ceremonies.

At the opening ceremony, Luders was a watchdog for the Iraqi team, which consisted of a weightlifter who later defected. That’s when politics crept in.

“All the countries were alphabetical,” he said, “except for the I and the J – Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan. They kept her separated because of tension. “

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

Image Credit: Courtesy Brian Luders

Image Credit: Courtesy Brian Luders

Even something popular now, like Ali’s lighting the torch, was controversial. Former NBC executive Dick Ebersol was pushing for Ali, according to published reports, but Payne worried that many southerners were still viewing him as a conscientious objector. Payne gave in to his concerns, however.

How did Ali come about? One person told me that Ali’s people contacted Atlanta businessman Mack Wilbourn and suggested the former champion because he thought it would give Ali, who had Parkinson’s disease, some focus and purpose.

Wilbourn told me it was his idea to meet Ali at a party at his house. He said he suggested that Young write him a letter. Wilbourn said he hadn’t heard from the matter until Ali stepped out of the tunnel at the stadium.

Young says he can’t remember how this came about. “I was in a fog like this back then,” he said.

Ali arrived in town the day before the opening ceremony, wanting to cut his hair and eat something at Rahim’s Seafood in southwest Atlanta.

Young tried to convince him otherwise, since Ali lighting the torch was almost a state secret. Eventually Young gave in and drove Ali on his laps, hoping the news of perhaps the most famous man in the world wouldn’t get through.

Somehow it wasn’t the case in this pre-iPhone and social media world.

And Atlanta could conjure up a surprise for the ages.



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