Dick Yarbrough

Has it really have been 24 years since the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games? Next Sunday will mark 8,766 days since that dramatic night when Muhammed Ali, hands shaking with palsy, lit the cauldron signifying the beginning of 17 days of Olympic competition and the culmination of years of hard work.

During the Games, some 10,000 Olympians from 197 countries competed in 271 events, setting 662 records, including 32 world records and 111 Olympic records. Those events were seen by more than 5 million people in person and a worldwide television audience of more than 200 million.

More tickets were sold to women’s competitions than Barcelona had sold total tickets four years earlier. The women’s soccer gold medal finals held at UGA’s Sanford Stadium drew more than 80,000 spectators, the largest crowd ever to witness a women’s competition anywhere. (The USA won.)

Beyond the athletes, the real heroes were Billy Payne who had the idea of bringing the Games to Atlanta, and a small group of believers who helped him make that dream a reality. I was not among that group, and like many thought the whole idea was far-fetched. Little did I know I would soon be a part of the organization, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with every special interest group imaginable trying to shake us down for something (usually money or political leverage.)

Another group of heroes were the 50,000 volunteers who showed our visitors that Southern hospitality is real and genuine.

There were the dark moments, mainly the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park and the media feeding frenzy and ultimate destruction of the reputation of poor Richard Jewell, who deserved better. It took five years to catch the bomber, Eric Rudolph. He was found climbing out of a Dumpster by a rookie deputy sheriff in North Carolina.

The biggest loser was the city of Atlanta. Even though the city was indemnified from any tax liabilities — the Games were privately funded to the tune of $1.7 billion — they set up their own ambush marketing program, undercutting our Olympic sponsors. The mayor, Bill Campbell, who was to end up in the federal pokey on tax evasion charges, was the architect of a sidewalk vendors program that made the city look like a third-world flea market on steroids. All that it did was snarl traffic and dash the hopes of vendors thinking they would make money off the scheme and didn’t.

The local media gave the mayor and his cronies a pass, lest they be accused of being racist, and focused instead on our woebegone mascot Izzy and other trivialities. The lack of courage by the media in holding the city’s feet to the fire has contributed greatly to the mess currently taking place on the mean streets of Atlanta.

Now, 24 years later, I view the Olympic experience with mixed feelings. I am proud of what a group of committed and dedicated people were able to accomplish, despite the unnecessary obstacles and the constant second-guessing by outsiders. I have been on this earth a long time and have never been around a better or more charismatic leader than Billy Payne. One of my favorite quotes from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” says, “Some see things as they are and say why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not?” That is Billy Payne.

Sadly, the city of Atlanta was in way over its head and couldn’t walk their big talk. But I can’t be too critical of Malfunction Junction. After the Games were over, I was asked to write a guest column on how the city performed in 1996. I wasn’t kind. I said Atlanta blew a great opportunity and wasn’t even the Next Great City, as it claimed to be. Charlotte had taken that title along with all the city’s bank headquarters. And that’s the nice stuff.

The column got national attention, and I was asked to write another one and then another until now, when I find myself in my 22nd year as a weekly syndicated columnist in 47 newspapers across the state. Thank you, Atlanta. I couldn’t have done it without you.

I don’t see or hear from many of my Olympic colleagues these days, but if any of them are reading this, the city put on a great show and can take great pride in what it did and how it was done. But, really, can you believe it has been 24 years?

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