August 16, 2016

Remembering the 1996 Centennial Olympics

     If a reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald hadn’t called, the 2016 Olympics might have come and gone without getting much of my attention.  Shame on me, Michael, Simone and other American Olympians. I’ve had other things on my mind. 
     As chairman of Athens 96, I was asked for my memories of the 1996 Centennial Olympics.    When the “It’s Atlanta!” announcement was made in Tokyo, Vince Dooley, Billy Payne’s former football coach, said, “Billy, don’t forget Athens.” The man who had the dream didn’t. Athens was the largest venue outside of Atlanta, hosting four events.
     From the moment Billy shared his vision, I was a believer.  And then came a phone call from Athens Chamber of Commerce president Pat Allen.  We’d become friends through Leadership Georgia.  “How’d you like to chair Athens 96?” he asked.  I had the Olympic fever.  The only way to cure it was to get involved.  From the outset, we wanted Athens and the University of Georgia to win gold medals for preparation and hospitality.
     Twenty years later, I snapped off the lid of a big plastic container and starting digging into 1996 keepsakes.  As if it were a bag of hot boiled peanuts, I wasn’t going to stop until I got to the bottom.  Here’s what that nostalgic rummaging brought to mind:
     –The 28 volunteers of Athens 96 were a dream team.  I set our meetings at 7 a.m. In 1993, we started with a smile.  In 1996, we ended with a smile.
     –Every dime had to be raised.  The Chamber, the city-county government and the University of Georgia each donated $1,000.  From there, we raised more than $500,000 in private dollars. We were frugal, but everything was first-class.  We saved half of our money to invest in 33 post-Olympic legacy projects, touching every corner of the community.
     –I was asked—often—“What was the best legacy?”  My answer was always the same: “Cooperation.  I have never seen the government, the business community and the university work together so well.”
     –Vince Dooley called to say: “We’re taking the hedge out of Sanford Stadium to make room for soccer.  Do you want some of the hedge?”  Several years later, I reported—with pride—how well my plantings were doing.  “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” he said, “but you can’t kill privet hedge.”  He’s right.  Ours is still getting its annual trim at the farm.
     –One day, Billy was on the phone: “Don’t you want to run the torch?”  Duh.  I had been so busy, I had forgotten to apply.   “Be in Toccoa next Thursday,” he said.  And I was, skinny legs and all, trotting in Stephens County with a flaming torch.  Jogging beside me was our younger son, Eric.  Unforgettable.
     –And there were Billy and his children, Porter and Elizabeth, running their legs of the Torch Relay through Sanford Stadium, where Billy and his dad had starred as Bulldogs.
     –When 80-something Fred Birchmore was invited to run the torch, he asked, “How far you want me to run it?”  When Fred was told one-eighth of a mile, he said, “Hell, I can run that far on my hands.”  Indeed he could have.  He once walked down the Washington Monument on his hands, and he rode his bicycle around the world.  In his prime, he’d jog around Sanford Stadium’s track and then walk up and down the stadium steps—on his hands— to break the monotony.
     –Not since Herschel Walker had I seen Sanford Stadium so electrified as when the American women’s soccer team won the gold.  As I dug through the memorabilia, I could still hear: “USA! USA! USA!”
     –The only event that came close was sitting in Atlanta during the opening ceremony and wondering: “Who is going to light the flame?”  Billy kept that secret sealed tight.  The crowd roared when Muhammad Ali appeared with his torch.
     –And let’s not forget when Billy brought the Olympic story to Jesup. He and I were walking out of Sanford Stadium, savoring a Bulldog victory over Alabama.  He was just back from Tokyo, too, so the timing was double-perfect for me to pop the question: “Will you be the keynote speaker at our chamber of commerce banquet?”  Billy was too happy to say no.
     Ah, the memories. Gold medals every one of them.

Twenty years ago, Georgia was abuzz with Olympic fever.  Starting in 1993, I 
served as chairman of Athens 96 until the completion of the Centennial Games.  
Hosting four events—volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics, and women’s and men’s soccer—
Athens was the largest venue outside of Atlanta.  If Atlanta Committee chairman Billy 
Payne hadn’t called, I would have missed a chance to run a leg of the torch relay.

My duties included dozens of presentations and civic talks.   

The 1996 Olympic torch relay brought thousands of people to 
downtown Athens.  From 1993 to 1996, I served as chairman 
of Athens 96, coordinating the community’s involvement in 
four venues: men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball and rhythmic 
gymnastics.  Among other keepsakes, Billy Payne sent me this 
autographed photo of the torch’s entry to Athens.

Billy asked my wife, Pam, and me to serve as presidential 
ambassadors for the 1996 Olympics.  We helped entertain dignitaries from 
around the globe.  We also spent time with Georgia leaders such 
as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalyn Carter.