By Collin Kelley
When attorney Billy Payne first floated the idea of Atlanta hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games way back in 1987, many people had the same reaction: “Dream on, Billy.”
Atlanta had everything going against it: insufficient infrastructure, little international standing and a lingering “Old South” mentality despite desegregation. And, of course, there was the exorbitant cost.
But Mayor Andrew Young latched onto Payne’s idea. It was the ‘80s, after all, and business was booming, neighborhoods were being reclaimed, the Atlanta airport was growing and even Underground Atlanta was in the process of getting a new lease on life as a shopping destination.
Fast forward to Sept. 18, 1990.
Atlanta was actually on the shortlist of potential hosts for the Summer Games, but the long shot to get the nod. The favorites were Toronto and Athens (which hosted the first Olympic Games) along with Belgrade, Manchester and Melbourne.
Atlantans huddled around TVs and gathered Downtown as International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch made the announcement from Tokyo: “The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of… Atlanta.”
The delegation in Tokyo, which included Payne, Young and a very relieved Mayor Maynard Jackson, erupted into cheers, while there were hugs, tears and dancing at Underground.
By the time INtown was launched in its first iteration as Atlanta 30306 in November 1994, the city was in the middle of a massive transformation not seen since Reconstruction. The Olympic Stadium was under construction next door to the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, it’s progress a daily reminder of the juggernaut of 10,000 athletes and two millions visitors descending on the city in less than two years.
On the west side of Downtown, a former wasteland of abandoned buildings and warehouses, a new gathering spot called Centennial Olympic Park was being built. It was to be the focal point of all the entertainment surrounding the Games.
A new natatorium was under construction at Georgia Tech, along with the Olympic Village. The High Museum was planning a historic and mind-blowing exhibition of great art treasures from around the world. There was increased interest in art in general, with sculpture and installations part of the Olympic transformation.
The entire city was getting a facelift to make its big international debut, and some of it was controversial, including attempts to remove the homeless from Downtown and the unveiling of the totally bizarre (and almost universally detested) Olympic mascot, Izzy. To be fair, Izzy started a trend of wacky mascots (London’s one-eyed Wenlock, anyone?) that make Atlanta’s blue bomb look downright cuddly by comparison. All is forgiven, Izzy.
But when boxing legend Muhammad Ali lit the torch at the opening ceremonies on July 19, 1996, there was a collective sigh of relief. The Games were off to a good start, with US athletes on the road to collecting 101 medals.
Then there was the bomb.
On July 27, Eric Robert Rudolph – who wouldn’t be brought to justice until 2003 – placed a pipe bomb in the park. It killed two and wounded 111 others. It was a Friday night and the park was packed with people enjoying the music and atmosphere of the games.
Georgia Tech professor and poet Karen Head had been in the park the night before standing in almost the exact spot where the bomb went off. “It still gives me a little chill to think about it,” she says.
Luckily, Head’s lasting memory is attending the medal round of the dressage competition (“Even the horses got medals!”) and seeing a visiting Princess Anne in the stands.
Eve Hoffman, who sat on the Metro Atlanta Olympic Games Authority, attended the opening ceremonies and remembers the “cacophony of languages” as she walked from Midtown to the Olympic Stadium. “I felt like a hostess welcoming the world,” she said. “I walked a little taller in the heat with my daughter at my side. Later, we went to Centennial Park to see our names inscribed on the paving bricks, including one for my husband who had died a year earlier.”
At the end of the Games, there was a collective opinion on the international stage that the Atlanta Olympics had been a bit ho-hum. There was no dazzle or glitz at the opening and closing ceremonies to remember, the bombing had stolen many of the headlines and many thought the Games were too commercialized. Even Samaranch, who had called each Games before it the “best ever,” simply said “Well done, Atlanta.” That stung a bit.
But Atlanta’s reputation as an international city, a tourist destination and city keen on business was cemented nevertheless. The Games pumped $5.14 billion into the city and the transformation of Downtown would continue with Philips Arena, Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Center for Civil and Human Rights and College Football Hall of Fame. Centennial Park has become Downtown’s “living room” for concerts, holiday celebrations and a gathering spot for workers and city-dwellers, who have returned in droves.
The city’s population surged from 3.5 million in 1996 to nearly 5.5 million today, more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has a shiny new international terminal and retains its designation as busiest in the world.
Jeff Morrison, a history buff and project architect with Collins Cooper Carusi, said that Atlanta had successfully “absorbed” the Olympic venues unlike other host cities.
“In some host cities, the venues are abandoned and deteriorating,” Morrison said. “To Atlanta’s credit, it has outgrown the Olympics, repurposed the venues and moved on.”
Morrison said he believes Atlanta would have continued to grow even if it has lost the Olympics, but it would have probably been a slower process.
Morrison said there are still areas of Downtown that need more attention. He specifically mentioned Mitchell Street between the city, county federal government complexes and Castleberry Hill.
“The area is not without occupants, but it doesn’t add anything to neighborhood,” he said. “People drive there to work, then go home. It’s an area not contributing to the urban neighborhood.”
When Morrison moved to Atlanta just after the Games, he said there will still swaths of Downtown up to Midtown that were empty or under-utilized.
“I had dinner at the SunDial on top of the Westin Peachtree recently and it is amazing to see how much has filled in,” he commented.
Central Atlanta Progress President A.J. Robinson said the physical element of Centennial Park was the catalyst for all the development around it.
“The legacy is the constant reminder that Atlanta can meet any challenge when the city puts its mind to it,” Robinson said. “Today, you might not see that in as grandiose fashion as the Olympics, but the spirit remains in the minds of many of us.”
In the summer, when the Rings Fountain cools off kids of all ages in the middle of Centennial Park, Billy Payne’s hair-brained idea 27 years ago continues to pay in dividends.