Recalling the best and worst of Centennial Olympic Games

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Twenty-five years ago this week, Bill Clinton was winding up his first term as president and trying to remember if he knew someone named Monica Lewinsky.  Newt Gingrich was riding high as U.S. Speaker of the House. The Atlanta Braves were in the process of winning the National League Championship.  (They would lose to the New York Yankees in the World Series.)  Braveheart was the Picture of the Year.  ER was the top-rated television series. 

Billy Payne, a real estate attorney and former UGA football star, was about to see his dream of bringing the Centennial Olympic Games to Atlanta come to fruition and I was doing my damnedest to help him.  Leave it to English author Charles Dickens to concisely sum up that experience for me: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The best of times was some 10,000 athletes from 197 countries competing in 26 different sports, most of whom were eliminated in their first round of competition, but who will always and forevermore be known as Olympians.  There was the dramatic moment of seeing a palsied Muhammed Ali light the Olympic flame after the Olympic Torch had wended its way across the country to enthusiastic crowds.    There were a lot of best of times.

There were also some worst of times.  The bombing in Centennial Olympic Park midway through the Games.  We had been assured by federal authorities that while there was always the possibility of a random act of violence, they had the people and skills to find the perpetrators quickly.  Yeah, right.  Eric Rudolph who set off the bomb ran free for five years before he was caught climbing out of a dumpster by a rookie police deputy in North Carolina. 

The worst of times also included special interest groups using the Olympics as a platform to espouse their particular cause from state flaggers to labor unions to environmentalists to the disabled, feminists, gay and anti-gay groups, inner city advocates, the Christian Right and the Concerned Black Clergy – the list was endless and mean-spirited. 

The City of Atlanta provided both the best and worst of times.  The city was totally unprepared for what hosting the Games entailed.  They saw it merely as a way of making money.  As one bureaucrat angrily stated in a meeting, “What good is having the Olympic Games in Atlanta if we can’t make a buck off them?”  It got worse.  The city’s marketing director talked of beaming ads off the moon and putting ad boards on stray dogs, making us an international joke before the first spade had been placed in the ground.   

Even though the city was indemnified from any tax liability – we raised $1.7 billion privately to stage the Centennial Olympic Games – they undertook an ambush marketing campaign with our sponsors’ competitors.  A sidewalk vendors program was a financial disaster, clogging downtown streets and making the city look like a third-world country on steroids.  Atlanta showed the world they were no more the Great International City they claimed to be than Hahira is the Lima Bean Capital of the World. 

So, how was that the best of times?  I was asked by the Atlanta Business Chronicle to write a guest editorial a couple of years later looking back on the experience.  I was not kind.  I skewered the city, the business community and the local media for blowing a great opportunity and being unable to walk their big talk.  The column caused a sensation.  I was asked to write another one and another one and now more than two decades and several thousand columns later, I am still at it. 

Looking back 25 years, I choose to remember the best of those times. I am proud to have been a part of a group of outstanding, dedicated people who helped stage the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.  It wasn’t easy but we did it.  We sold 8.6 million tickets, including more tickets to women’s events alone than Barcelona had sold total tickets four years earlier.   Some 200 million television viewers and 5 million spectators saw 32 world records and 111 Olympic records established.  And don’t forget the 50,000 volunteers who gave new meaning to the term Southern Hospitality. 

Despite the frustrations, nothing I went through rises to the level of what Tokyo will be facing in a couple of weeks.  Talk of beaming ads off the moon seems pretty tame today compared to a pandemic. Now, that is truly the worst of times.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at dick@dickyarbrough.com; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.

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