Looking back at the Olympics

Published 2:59 pm Friday, May 1, 2009

I was at the Masters a few weeks ago and had to giggle. (Well, not giggle. I don’t think giggling is allowed at Augusta National. But I was smiling.)

As I strolled amid the azaleas and pines and watched magnificent golf being played on a spectacular course, my mind returned to a time 15 years earlier when circumstances were much different than on this crisp, clear day in Augusta.

The year was 1994, and the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta were preparing to host the world at the Centennial Olympic Games two years later. The idea of holding the Olympics in Atlanta had been the dream of a real estate attorney named Billy Payne, and he had shocked the world by pulling off his audacious plan.

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Zell Miller was governor. Bill Campbell was Atlanta’s mayor. Locals who had cheered the news of the city’s selection now were either whining about traffic or trying to make a buck or two off the Games. The Atlanta newspapers licked their lips over the prospects of being viewed as among the nation’s elite media through their coverage of the planning for the Centennial Games.

Inexplicably, the paper made the decision to focus its coverage on Billy Payne and his team, thereby ignoring what was happening inside city government. Serious mistake. While the paper’s army of reporters and columnists wrote ad nauseum about the most mundane doings at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the city’s marketing director was gaining worldwide notoriety for his supposedly serious plan to place ads on stray dogs and beam messages on the moon. Bill Campbell and his cronies were creating a marketing scheme to compete with Olympic sponsors and concocting a god-awful vendors’ program that would badly clog the city’s streets during the Games. The city was a train wreck waiting to happen as the Atlanta papers blathered endlessly about Izzy, the woebegone Centennial Games mascot.

Fifteen years have passed. The 1996 Olympic Games have come and gone. Zell Miller is enjoying retirement in Young Harris. (By the way, someone sent me word that Zell’s reaction to my recent column urging him to run again was, “Thanks, but no thanks.”) Bill Campbell has been a guest of the federal prison system after being convicted of tax evasion. The city of Atlanta is broke, can’t fix its sewers or its crime problem, and nobody in their right mind would stroll downtown streets after dark as they did during the magical 17 days when the world came to visit.

Ignoring the opportunity to link itself to worldwide exposure created by the Centennial Olympic Games, the marketing geniuses in Atlanta created something called Brand Atlanta, replete with lots of rap music. In less than four years, the program was deader than the fescue in my yard.

The Atlanta newspapers not only did not make a national reputation at ACOG’s expense, the local paper is by its own admission gasping for breath these days, as are most big-city papers. In one final Olympic-sized pique way back when, the paper publicly blamed me for everything from buses running late to kinks in the computerized scoring system, and if memory serves me correctly, the Franco-Prussian War and mad cow disease. It dang near ruined my day.

I’m not sure what has happened to the eager-beaver reporters who couldn’t see the greatness of the Olympic Games if it hit them in the fanny with a track shoe, but I am sure that I don’t care.

As for Billy Payne, he survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and delivered on his promises to stage an outstanding Olympic Games in his state. Today, he is the highly respected chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and thoroughly enjoying his life, his job and his grandchildren.

Now, maybe you can understand why I was trying not to giggle these 15 years later as I soaked in the ambience of the Masters. My friend Billy Payne is on top of the world, and deservedly so. As for the small-minded blowhards in Atlanta, they got what they deserved, too. Revenge is sweet.