Andrew Young reflects on 1996 Atlanta Games as U.S. Olympic torch passes to Los Angeles
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
If Muhammad Ali was on the other end of the phone, you would still remember it 27 years later, too.
Andrew Young, now 91 years old, was recently asked his clearest memories of the 1996 Atlanta Games. Young, the Atlanta mayor from 1982 to 1990, and co-chair of the Olympic organizing committee, recalled exactly what he heard on a telephone the day before the Opening Ceremony.
“Come get me,” Ali said. “I need to get a haircut.”
Ali, then 54 years old and 12 years into his Parkinson’s diagnosis, was in town to light the cauldron. That was of course a closely kept secret at the time, so officials wanted to seclude him in a hotel.
So Young said he’d bring a barber to him.
"[Ali] said, ‘No, I want to get out and see the people,’” Young recalled. Young obliged and picked him up.
“He went to the barber shop hugging and kissing everybody, and he went to a fish restaurant the Nation of Islam sponsors here in the Black community,” Young said. “He bought lunch for everybody.”
The 2028 Los Angeles Games will be the first Summer Olympics and Paralympics in the U.S. since the Centennial Games in Atlanta in 1996. There are Olympic ties between the two cities.
When Young first got involved in bid talks in the late 1980s, he went to see Tom Bradley, who was the Los Angeles mayor when it hosted in 1984. Bradley told him that the best thing that happened to the LA ’84 bid was that the city government was against it due to cost concerns. So it became a private financing plan, led by Peter Ueberroth, one that ultimately generated $225 million in profit.
Atlanta tried to follow suit. But Young was skeptical both that Georgia’s capital would be chosen as the U.S. bid city over about a dozen other early candidates and that IOC members would vote in 1990 to bring the Games back to the U.S. so soon after 1984.
The U.S. Olympic Committee ultimately picked Atlanta over Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville and San Francisco.
Next, Young and his team eyed votes from IOC members from African nations -- “Atlanta was a majority African-American population,” Young said -- and from the Soviet Union -- “Ted Turner put on the Goodwill Games,” Young noted. And the rest?
“The strategy was to make us their second choice because nobody knew anything about Atlanta at that time,” he said.
It worked. Atlanta didn’t get the most votes in the first round, but none of the six candidates had a majority. As the lowest vote-getters were dropped from the ballot, Atlanta picked up more votes and eventually won head-to-head over a sentimental Athens bid in the fifth and final round. The Greek capital had hoped to get the Olympics back for the 100th anniversary of the first modern Games.
Young said that if Atlanta had lost, it planned to bid again.
On the field of play, the Atlanta Games are most remembered for sprinter Michael Johnson sweeping the 200m and 400m in golden shoes and Carl Lewis’ fourth long jump gold and Jackie Joyner-Kersee‘s gutsy long jump bronze in their Olympic farewells. Plus the success of U.S. women’s teams with titles in gymnastics, basketball, soccer and softball.
Young was most visible on the 11th day of the Games. On July 30, 1996, he delivered an on-stage speech to thousands as Centennial Park reopened, three days after a bombing that killed two people.
In preparing for that moment, Young recalled what he was told by deacons before his first sermon as a pastor at a South Georgia church decades earlier.
“We don’t want to see no paper in the pulpit,” they told him. “We want you to speak from your heart, and let the Spirit speak through you.”
The most replayed line from Young’s speech, which he did not watch himself until speaking at a Yale business school event 10 years later: “We’re here to proclaim a victory. We’re here not to wallow in tragedy, but to celebrate a triumph, a triumph of the human spirit.”
For years after the Games, Centennial Park had a memorial area where the bomb went off near the east fence (might still be there). There were 111 stones (for the 111 people injured that night) placed in a diamond-shaped plaza called the “Quilt of Remembrance.” Etched quotes surrounded it, including one from Young: “We will remember ... not hatred, not bitterness, not alienation ... but joy and happiness ... We still love this park.”
These days, Young gets reminded of the Atlanta Games on his commute to his foundation’s downtown office. He passes by the Olympic cauldron that Ali lit, though he never cared for its design.
For Young, the Games’ legacy was making Atlanta a world-class city. He noted Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport, which became the world’s busiest.
“My fondest memories of the Atlanta Games are the struggle that roughly a dozen people went through to get the Games,” he said, noting the early organizers of the bid while also acknowledging what he estimated were more than 100,000 volunteers by the end. “It wasn’t really just about the Games. ... It really made Atlanta stand tall.”
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