It’s Atlanta! Has It Really Been 29 Years Since That Day?

September 18, 1990. A sunny day with a predicted high of 82. Quite unlike the climate now experienced in mid-September.

The advertising staff of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, numbering around 200, were gathered at a Holiday Inn just off 285 in Cobb County. Many of the attendees had driven through three counties or more to attend the 8:00 am “Holiday Kick-Off” breakfast. Christmas was more than three months away but it wasn’t too early to focus on how millions of Americans celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. Shopping season was nigh. And the ad salespeople would remind retailers and other businesses that if they wanted a happy and bustling holiday season, they had better run lots of ads in the Thanksgiving Day edition of the AJC — and in all of the gift guides we’d publish into mid-December. Newcomers to the ad staff were astounded by management’s fervor. The ones of us who had been around for a decade or so simply rolled our eyeballs at the hype, all the while knowing we’d come through and add to the prosperity of Cox Newspapers. Roll with it. This too shall pass.

Instead of gathering in the hotel’s ballroom for the usual chit-chat prior to the meeting, many of us stayed in our cars listening to the radio for a major announcement. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) was in Tokyo to vote  on which city would host the 1996 Summer Games. The suspense had been building for three years and now it was at full boil. Atlanta was in the running, contending for what was then a coveted opportunity. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, at 7:47 am Atlanta time, made the announcement that he had difficulty believing: “The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of … Atlanta.”

The AJC ad staff, inside the Holiday Inn or in its parking lot, whooped it up big time. Atlanta had been a major league sports town for a quarter century, but this was international acclaim. The inferiority complex that often dogged Atlanta could finally be shaken off. At least that’s what we thought as we gathered in the hotel ballroom for the usual brainwashing about holiday ads. We heard the holiday pitches and then learned of all the other advertising opportunities to present to our beleaguered clients. Special Olympics sections galore — including one for the coming Sunday paper. This would go on for six years. Those of us who survived it would remember it as a heady time.

While 200 or so of us were at the dingy Holiday Inn, it seemed the rest of Atlanta was at the Underground Atlanta plaza for the announcement and celebration. It was like an official proclamation from on high declaring No More Wars. Ever. Strangers high-fived and hugged each other. The city had come together like no time before or since. And it wasn’t even 9:00 am yet. A full work day awaited.

Of course Atlanta Newspapers had been gearing up for the big story ever since local attorney Billy Payne came up with the audacious idea of bringing the 1996 Summer Olympics Games to Georgia’s capitol city. That was 1987. Payne not only let his wife in on his wild-eyed dream, he also shared it with Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. Recognizing a man of faith when he saw one, Young decided Payne was doing the Lord’s work. Andrew Young and Billy Payne became partners. Payne laid out his plans, connecting the dots while Young would convince the world, including the steely International Olympic Committee (IOC), that Payne’s dream wasn’t so far-fetched after all.

As those few years passed, Atlantans started to believe the city had a chance to host the world on its grandest stage. The AJC put some of its best reporters, including Bert Roughton, on the Olympics beat. A mix of advertising and editorial staffers attended a Chamber of Commerce type luncheon featuring some IOC heavyweights. There were some very positive things said about Atlanta’s chances. Most impressive was Roughton’s observations of the city’s efforts. He told those of us at the table that Atlanta was making serious headway. Roughton didn’t strike us a guy easily persuaded about anything. Maybe it would be Atlanta.

It helps to have Andrew Young as your spokesman and salesman. He walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in the civil rights movement when the steps were perilous. Young kept cool and told others what they didn’t want to hear but won their respect all the while. The idea of Atlanta, Georgia hosting the Olympics no doubt struck the powers-that-be as preposterous at first but that didn’t bother Young. He was there to deliver a dream.

And so the first editions of The Atlanta Journal, the afternoon paper, hit the streets on the morning of Tuesday, September 18, 1990 with the great news: “It’s Atlanta!” The Journal had, as with nearly all afternoon papers across the country, been suffering circulation declines in the last decade or so, but not on that day. Copies were purchased as soon as they were delivered, with extras purchased as souvenirs. It wasn’t just any edition with a joyous headline. The newspapers’ best reporters and columnists had done their homework in advance of the announcement.

Roughton, merging ideas of the future with core values, wrote that “Atlanta, which has been seen as the high tech candidate, stressed the themes of youth, hope and trust.”

Maria Saporta, the Business section columnist who kept the community-at-large in mind, conveyed the hope felt by Atlantans. It was a chance to step up and pull others up as well.

“While the economic impact numbers are preliminary, it is estimated the Olympics will bring nearly 84,000 full-time and part-time jobs into the local economy between now and 1996. By comparison, the largest private employer in Georgia is Delta Air Lines with 23,000 full-time employees.” 

Saporta had led with with how the games would bring an estimated $3.48 billion into the local economy over the coming six years, a real shot in the arm for the city which was then facing its first major downturn in more than a decade.

Legendary sports columnist Furman Bisher compared Atlanta’s victory to the tortoise beating the hare (Athens, Greece). Mark Bradley, then among the younger faces on the sports beat, asked readers if they “had once regarded Billy Payne as a dreamer with too much time on his hands.” Bradley acknowledged there was reason for readers to dismiss the dream, given, if nothing else, the performance of the local pro sports teams. After all, there were 25 years of professional sports in Atlanta to inform even the most casual observer. Taking note of fans’ cynicism which was most understandable, Atlantans, he wrote, “won’t support its pro teams until one of them glows white hot.”

“Nobody here wins big, not the Braves, not the Falcons, not the Hawks.” 

But on that day in Tokyo, Atlanta did win. It won big. As Mark Bradley wrote, “Today is a day to feel proud.” It was.

(photo by Jeff Cochran)