City of losers, Atlanta is sitting on top of world

September 19, 1990|By Jere Longmanand Tim Dwyer | Jere Longmanand Tim Dwyer,Knight-Ridder

ATLANTA -- With an emotional victory of unprecedented proportions, Atlanta yesterday morning gained the 1996 Summer Olympics and lost its reputation as an athletic Loserville.

For years, this was a city that supported its professional teams with empty seats and emptier enthusiasm. The hockey team, the Flames, has been gone with the wind for years. The Braves, suffering through another pathetic baseball season, drew 3,473 on Monday night. The Hawks, perennial National Basketball Association underachievers, dumped coach Mike Fratello after last season. The Falcons, longtime National Football League doormats, have resorted to a new, ruffian coach who leaves tickets for Elvis.

The sporting scene brightened last spring when Georgia Tech advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Yesterday, the sunlight came flooding in with the announcement that Atlanta would host the 1996 Summer Games. TV newsmen were reduced to tears. One headline proclaimed: "Forget Loserville, Atlanta has hit the big time."

Atlanta's procuring of the Games is a story as improbable as it is inspiring. When Billy Payne, a real estate lawyer and former football player at the University of Georgia, decided in February 1987 that he wanted to bring the 1996 Summer Olympics to Georgia, he was met with considerable disinterest.

Los Angeles, after all, had just been the host of the 1984 Summer Olympics, and it seemed unlikely that the Games would return to the United States so soon. Atlanta also had the burdensome reputation as Crime Capital of the United States. Anyway, Athens, Greece, which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, was the sentimental favorite to host the centennial Games.

The movers and shakers of Atlanta gave Payne good wishes but no money. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution called Payne's dream a "long shot."

Still, Payne persevered. He rounded up nine volunteers, each of whom donated at least $50,000, and went about trying to persuade the rest of the world that the Olympics belonged in the Deep South.

Atlanta, after all, was the economic hub of the South. It did have many things in its favor. It had Hartsfield International, one of the world's largest airports. It was a convention city expected to have 65,000 hotel rooms by 1996. Its massive interstate system, which seemed to be under construction for decades, is finally finished. Commuters zip along on six-lane highways.

Atlanta also happened to be the spiritual home of the U.S. civil rights movement. One of the city's favorite sons, Andrew Young, had been an acolyte of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then named ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy (( Carter. In 1987, Young was a second-term mayor of Atlanta. Payne sought his counsel, which proved to be a wise move. Young traveled to 30 countries, using his extensive international contacts to form close bonds with IOC members in Third World nations.

It was Young, a recent unsuccessful candidate for governor of Georgia, who made Atlanta's final pitch to the International Olympic Committee on Monday in Tokyo.

In 1988, when Atlanta won out over Nashville, San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul as the U.S. candidate to host the 1996 Games, the coffers opened; money started pouring in. Eventually, Atlanta would spend $7 million campaigning for the Summer Games.

As expected, yesterday's voting went five ballots. Toronto; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Manchester, England; and Melbourne, Australia, were eliminated after four votes, leaving Atlanta and // Athens. But the latter apparently scared off the IOC because of its unstable government, the prospect of Middle Eastern terrorism, pollution and lack of facilities. On the fifth ballot, Atlanta won, 51 votes to 35.

The city has some facilities in place, including the Omni arena, and an 80,000-seat domed stadium under construction. A number of facilities must be built, including an 85,000-seat stadium to host the opening and closing ceremonies, and the track and field events. An athletes' village will go up near Georgia Tech.

But all that can be left to the detail people. For the moment, Atlanta basks in community pride. It is Loserville no more.

"This proves if you run the race, you can win," Mayor Maynard Jackson said.

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