The entire city was on edge, brimming with anticipation. It was September 18, 1990, and thousands were crowded outside Underground Atlanta as six cities around the world listened to a broadcast from Tokyo to see which finalist had been awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics. After a ponderous buildup, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch opened an envelope that contained the winning city's name.
Haltingly, Samaranch said what many would consider the four most important words in the city's history: "[T]he city of ... Atlanta!"
The city erupted with cheers. The delegates on hand alternately wailed and sobbed. That evening, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a headline on the front page that read, "City explodes in thrill of victory." Halfway down the page, a secondary headline for a related article noted: "We finally won something!"
It was the biggest upset in Olympic history as Atlanta shocked the world by defeating five other cities — included a flabbergasted Athens, Greece — in its quest to host the Centennial Olympics. Atlanta staged the ultimate heist, joining St. Louis and Los Angeles as just the third American city to host the summer games.
Twenty-two years later, our unlikely Olympic legacy remains entwined with the city's identity. The importance of holding a summer Olympics can be understood by looking at previous host cities — a short list includes Paris, London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Tokyo, Mexico City, Moscow, Seoul, Sydney, and Beijing. Atlanta's Olympic bid victory offered a pivotal chance to redefine the way Atlanta would be seen and remembered. With Samaranch's announcement, the city embarked on a transformative journey from an embattled regional capital to — arguably — a vibrant world-class city.
Atlanta reinvented itself in preparation for the games, undergoing changes that many say benefit the city to this day. Iconic landmarks such as Turner Field and Centennial Olympic Park helped spur a new era of tourism. Much of the metropolitan area received a face-lift as the result of increased economic development and policy changes in support of the summer games.
In one of Atlanta's defining moments, however, commercial exploits and tragic violence cast a shadow over the spotlight. As the city brought together more countries than the United Nations connects, Olympic organizers struggled to convey the ideal image they hoped to present to the world. Sixteen years after the games concluded, history has, for the most part, looked back favorably on the games despite the obvious black marks affecting the two-week spectacle — often in ways not obvious to those who still call Atlanta home.
Perhaps more important, Atlanta rallied around a single cause — a rare occurrence in the city's discordant past. In 1864, General Sherman ordered the city to be burned down to ensure a faster end to the Civil War. More than 130 years later, Atlanta finally found unity through the Olympic flame, kindled by Muhammad Ali's ceremonial torch.
"The reputation, the visibility of Atlanta as an international city just sprang to life," says A.D. Frazier, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) chief operating officer. "I think our image as a destination ... was fundamentally changed. It was a pivotal turning point for the city."
Frazier, a former banking, broadcasting, and political executive who oversaw the bulk of Olympic operations from 1991 to 1996, found himself in charge of the games' preparations and subsequent development. He's responsible for building Olympic Stadium, later renamed Turner Field, adjacent to the Braves' former home of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. He assisted Billy Payne, ACOG's chief executive officer and current chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, in constructing Centennial Olympic Park — the largest American urban center park created in the past quarter century. Inspired by Barcelona's Plaça d'Espanya, a city center where Olympic attendees congregated during the 1992 games, the two attempted to re-create that spirited camaraderie in their own hometown.
"The park was an 11th-hour brainstorm of Billy Payne for people to congregate," says Don Rooney, Atlanta History Center Director of Exhibitions. "A.D. Frazier just about busted a gasket when Billy Payne said, 'I see a park out here.'"
According to Frazier, Centennial Olympic Park, before then mostly vacant lots and half-empty warehouses, offered people much more than just a gathering place. With the development of the park, downtown became revitalized for local residents and business owners as well as a hub for tourism.
"I think the Olympics were a catalyst," he says. "I've likened it to putting an ink drop in a glass of water. I think when downtown came to life for the Olympics, it caused a lot of people to think about reinvesting and redoing parts of downtown."
"Downtown Atlanta was dying. There was nothing taking place," SUMMECH Executive Director Janis Ware says. "Philips Arena was also redone. Now you have the Georgia Dome there. You've got the aquarium, the Coca-Cola Museum. You have so many things to do."
When Atlanta was awarded the Olympics 22 years ago, it was forever changed. For better or worse is still being debated.
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