Column: Olympics’ ‘Atlanta Nine’ hold 20-year reunion

By Maria Saporta
Friday, September 24, 2010

It was the 20th year reunion of believers. Every member of the “Atlanta Nine” was present. These were the nine Atlantans who believed that a Southern city could win the top prize in international sports — the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

The believers met Sunday evening, Sept. 19, at STATS sports bar — itself part of Atlanta’s Olympic legacy.

The catalyst behind the Atlanta Nine was Billy Payne, who championed the effort to bring the Olympics to Atlanta and convinced nine of his closest friends to follow his dream.

Payne introduced each of his followers one by one: Peter Candler, Ginger Watkins, Horace Sibley, Charlie Battle, Charlie Schaffer, Linda Stephenson, Cindy Fowler, Bobby Reardon and Tim Christian.

“Tonight we celebrate something very special,” Payne said. “We collectively, all of us, took an impossible dream, a 1,000-to-1 chance, and we made it happen. We brought it home.”

Payne spoke to about 100 people who had gathered to re-celebrate the moment that occurred on Sept. 18, 1990 — the moment in Tokyo, Japan, when Juan Antonio Samaranch uttered those two defining words “It’s Atlanta.” Those two words altered the course of the city’s history.

During the evening at STATS, a WXIA commemorative video was shown of Atlanta winning the games. When video showed Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee, saying: “It’s Atlanta,” the crowd at STATS voiced a spontaneous gasp followed by cheers and clapping. It was as if they had erased the past 20 years and were reliving that one special moment.

Payne described how everyone in the room had been afflicted with Olympic fever, but he said that only one of the Atlanta Nine had not been able to get rid of it — Charlie Battle — who has worked with five or six other cities working on Olympic bids.

“I can tell you that everywhere I go and everybody I talk to, they still talk about the people on the Atlanta bid team,” Battle said. “There will never be another group like this.”

Payne described the Atlanta strategy this way. “We defaulted to a very simple strategy,” Payne said of the Atlanta team’s international outreach. “If they were our friends, they would support us in a secret ballot. So we started and embraced a period to make friends. We did so, and we exposed them to all of us in this room — a people, a region of this world that wanted to embrace them.”

Payne was visibly moved after watching the video, which included then Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. “I’m certain he convinced so many people to support us,” Payne said of Jackson, adding that he “kept us all accountable.” Then Payne recognized Jackson’s widow — Valerie Jackson.

Payne saved his most gracious words for former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who, as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had made friends around the world. Payne called Young “one of my greatest friends and my greatest hero.”

When Young addressed the crowd, he endearingly called them “the craziest bunch of people in the world.” He said those were the words that Martin Luther King Jr. used to describe those in the Civil Rights Movement. The idealism of those in the movement was similar to those who had signed on to Atlanta’s Olympic movement.

“Nobody has been able to figure out that formula since,” Young said. “There was a magnanimous spirit. Nobody was looking for money. People were paying their own way, taking their own vacations, opening up their own homes, entertaining people from around the world.”

For Young, the moment that exemplified the Olympics for him was when the Israelis, the Iraqis and the Iranians marched into Atlanta Olympic Stadium together. “I think that’s what has kept us all going,” Young said. “I don’t think there will ever be a sports event anywhere in the world that will match the one that we put on in Atlanta.”

Young, however, expressed disappointment that no one has written the definitive book about Atlanta’s Olympic Games.

“Billy, I thought you were going to write the book,” he said while looking to Payne. “It was your book to write.”

Young also took a bit of a swipe at Chicago’s unsuccessful efforts to lure the Olympics to the Windy City. Chicago had Oprah Winfrey, Mayor Richard Daley and President Barack Obama.

But Chicago “couldn’t replace the kind of love, genuine concern that we had expressed for the IOC and the whole world. It’s that desire to do impossible things.”

Battle said that bringing everyone back together for a 20th year reunion also was a bit of a miracle, and he credited Susan Watson for putting it together.

He also thanked David Marvin of Legacy Partners for providing STATS as the venue. Legacy Partners has been the leading developer to build around Centennial Olympic Park, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Olympic Games to Atlanta.

Among others present were A.D. Frazier, chief operating officer of the Olympics; former MARTA General Manager Ken Gregor and his colleague Morris Dillard; Pat Glisson; Bob Brennan, who handled communications; Olympics marketing leader Bob Cohn; former Metro Atlanta Chamber President Gerald Bartels; and Olympic athlete Dennis Berkholtz, who had championed an effort to try to bring the 1984 Olympics to Atlanta.

When Albert “Smitty” Smith walked in the room, there was a special cheer. Smitty, a signature employee of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, was an ambassador for the city during the Olympics.

In summing up the evening and the 20 years that had passed, Payne, now chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, said: “We did what we did because it was in the best interest of this great city.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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