Carrying the Torch: Atlanta's Olympic Legacy

Celebrate the 21st anniversary of Atlanta’s Olympic legacy with this nostalgic look at the heroes and hurdles that led to an underdog city hosting the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.

For many, Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics are a distant memory. With each passing Olympiad, some former volunteers and fans dust off their lapel pins, while others watch the opening ceremony nostalgically. No matter the ritual, everyone seems to have at least one favorite story to share from the first games hosted in the South.

Even as these memories fade from daily consciousness, few can deny those 16 days in 1996 forever placed Georgia’s capital on the map of world-class cities.

“We certainly would not have the international profile that Atlanta enjoys today,” said William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “When you think about the cities that have hosted the Olympics, it says something very special about your brand.”

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Cyclists race to the finish line during one of the many sporting events at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. (©Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Atlanta’s Olympic journey began with a shared dream and hard work.  

It was the mid-1980s when William “Billy” Porter Payne, a 34-year-old attorney and former University of Georgia football standout, felt a divine stroke of inspiration. Payne had just completed a community service project for his church and attended a sermon about the importance of helping others. Payne felt driven to give back to Atlanta in a big way, perhaps even by helping the city attain global prominence. He jotted ideas onto a legal pad. As Payne’s list grew, the words “host the Olympics” called out from the page.

Payne didn’t know how the worldwide Olympic Movement worked, but he quickly learned that in order to approach the U.S. Olympic Committee he needed the city of Atlanta on board. Civil rights icon, former U.N. ambassador and then-Mayor Andrew Young recalled his staff’s reluctance to meet with Payne—after all, Montreal was dealing with $750 million of debt after hosting the 1976 Games.

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Hosting the Olympics is an expensive and laborious endeavor. Cost and return on investment (ROI) are major points of consideration for cities interested in submitting an Olympic bid. (©Boston Globe/Getty Images)

"I heard Billy got this Olympic bid idea after church," said Young. "I'm a preacher, and I know how the Lord works on you." Young and the city signed on soon after.

Armed with the city’s support, Payne and Young recruited a group of community leaders, later nicknamed The Atlanta Nine. These local heavyweights fleshed out all facets of the campaign and spearheaded the domestic selection process that beat out Minneapolis, Nashville and San Francisco. In September 1990, the group flew to Tokyo, Japan, and presented their final, all-important bid before the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

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Akaterina Abramia performs her ribbon routine in the rhythmic gymnastics event during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. (©EMPICS/Alamy)

The 1996 Olympiad marked 100 years since the founding of the modern Games, celebrated for a century as the world’s largest peacetime gathering. Atlanta competed with five other cities with Olympic aspirations: Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Manchester, England; Melbourne, Australia; Toronto, Canada; and sentimental favorite Athens, Greece.

After four rounds of voting, Atlanta and Athens remained as finalists. Thousands of Georgia volunteers gathered downtown while CNN beamed a live feed of the final announcement.

“The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of … Atlanta!” Atlanta supporters erupted in applause en masse as IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said these words.

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For athletes, the Olympics represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve international acclaim in their sport. (©Simon Bruty/Getty Images)

Back in Atlanta, it was time to get to work on fulfilling commitments set forth by the bid. Breaking with tradition, Payne was the first-ever Olympic bid leader to also head the host organizing committee. It was his responsibility to ensure the city fulfilled its promises to build several stadiums and thousands of rooms to house athletes, while upgrading many existing venues across the region—and all in less than seven years.

The mid-1990s marked the arrival of a new Olympic Stadium, an enormous aquatic center at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), the Georgia Dome and numerous facilities, including venues for tennis, beach volleyball, shooting and other Olympic sports.

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The Olympic Village bustles with tens of thousands of spectators and thousands of athletic delegates during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. (©PA Images/Alamy)

Low- and high-rise dormitories were built along Interstate 75/I-85 to create the Olympic Village at Georgia Tech, while existing dorms and venues enjoyed Olympic-inspired upgrades.

In 1992, Payne visited Barcelona to observe the Spanish-hosted games and developed a second Olympic aspiration that would change Atlanta.

“Like Spain’s urban esplanades where fans could congregate, Atlanta needed a central gathering spot,” he explained.

After his return to Georgia, Payne gazed out the window of his downtown office to see blocks of dilapidated buildings. Instead of decaying structures, Payne envisioned a massive green space to bring the community together. And so, Centennial Olympic Park was born.

Steadily, Atlanta proved itself ready for the global event. By 1995, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games team employed nearly 4,000 paid staff, and recruited and trained more than 30,000 volunteers ready to represent Atlanta in front of the world.

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It was an emotional moment for audiences when boxing champion Muhammed Ali emerged as the torch bearer during the opening ceremonies in 1996. (©Reuters/Alamy)

On July 6, 1996, the first delegations checked into Olympic Village, ultimately joined by more than 10,000 athletes and coaches from a record 197 nations. During the opening ceremonies on July 19, 80,000 spectators and over 3 billion TV viewers marveled as 1960 Olympic boxing champion Muhammad Ali emerged to ignite the Olympic cauldron.

Centennial Olympic Park was the site of nightly celebrations. Sadly, the park was also the site of the games’ lowest point when a bomb planted by a domestic terrorist detonated during a late-night concert, killing one and injuring dozens. The Olympic Movement and Atlanta residents proved their resilience when the park reopened a few days later with a prayer service led by Young with Olympic and community leaders.

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Visitors can still enjoy the very structures where athletes once represented their countries with feats of strength, coordination and endurance. (©PA Images/Alamy)

Today, two decades later, Atlanta’s Olympic legacy remains evident.

Atlanta’s beloved Turner Field, which became the home of the MLB Atlanta Braves after taking over the Olympic Stadium in 1997, will soon take on another life. In 2017, the stadium, which is now owned by Georgia State University (GSU), will be transformed into a sprawling complex for the GSU Panthers.

As for Payne’s 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park, countless children have since splashed in its Fountain of Rings; tens of millions of visitors have attended concerts and holiday celebrations there; and even more have meandered through the park en route to surrounding attractions like the Georgia Aquarium, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the World of Coca-Cola and the Children’s Museum of Atlanta.

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Development spurred by the games in the ‘90s transformed Downtown Atlanta into the global tourism, business and convention hub it is today. (©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

“You can see the billions of dollars of economic development that has taken place on the perimeter of Centennial Olympic Park,” said Payne, who eventually returned to legal work before becoming chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club.

“For me, one of the greatest [Olympic] legacies is Atlanta’s sense of community spirit,” Payne added. “This is a magnificent community and it will continue to get better and better.”