ATLANTA -- Not long ago, the thought that the 1996 Summer Olympics might come to Atlanta was viewed here as simply outrageous. Even the most optimistic Atlantans were skeptical; the city is not used to winning anything in sports. Yes, it was the rejuvenated capital of the once-slumbering South. Yet how could it possibly host the only regularly scheduled gathering of the sporting world?

But now, five days before the 89 members of the International Olympic Committee vote in Tokyo to determine the site of the last Summer Games of the century, Atlanta is one of the favorites -- in some circles, the favorite -- to get the Olympics. And some of those very same Atlantans who were so uncertain a year ago now are daring to be confident that the IOC will annoint their city as one of the capitals of the Olympics and all they represent.

One thing is certain within the IOC, and that is that nothing is certain. Atlanta is one of six cities bidding to host the centennial celebration of the modern Olympics. That era began in 1896 in Athens, another of the bidding cities, and until the last year or so, the obvious choice. But when visiting IOC members peeled away tradition and sentiment in the Greek city, they found political instability, pollution, overcrowding, inadequate transportation and constant threats of terrorism.

All of a sudden, the other cities sprang to life. In addition to Atlanta, the candidates are Melbourne, Australia, Toronto, Belgrade, and Manchester, England, each of which has idiosyncrasies.

"I never thought this was crazy because I thought the commitment and enthusiasm would become infectious," said Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Organizing Committee.

Few IOC members will reveal their preference. There will be a secret ballot, or ballots, with the low vote-getter dropping out each time before one city receives the necessary majority.

The IOC evaluation commission recently ranked the cities based on facilities, transportation, communications, hotel availability, organization and the like. And word leaked out that Atlanta was ranked first.

"We had our Olympic beat writer visit all the cities and grade them," said Mike Tierney, executive sports editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "He was a tough grader, but Atlanta came out first."

It's an interesting thought, the Olympics in Atlanta. Although the 1984 Olympics were held in Los Angeles, no Summer Games in the United States have ever been held east of the Mississippi River. When he speaks to IOC delegates, Payne, a 42-year-old former football all-American at Georgia, verbally sections off the country, explaining how different Atlanta and the South are from Los Angeles and the West.

Another geographical factor is that the 1992 Olympics will be held in Barcelona, and the 2000 Olympics are expected to go to a reunited Berlin. So, if the 1996 Games don't come to North America, the next most likely Olympics to be held on this continent would be the 1998 Winter Games, in Salt Lake City (no sure thing).

That would mean the continent -- and the all-important U.S. television networks -- would have to go 10 years between Olympics in U.S. time zones, from the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary to the potential Salt Lake City Games. And that is not a pleasant situation for the IOC.

Atlanta, Toronto and Melbourne often are lumped together as the most logical sites for the 1996 Games. Melbourne, which hosted the 1956 Games, presents the problems of traveling long distances for much of the western world and of an out-of-season Summer Games. Toronto, once the most popular of the other-than-Athens contenders, has had to deal with political questions about hosting the Games and IOC reluctance to embrace aggressive Olympic leader Paul Henderson. Toronto's Olympics would be publicly financed, which means the Games could fall prey to all kinds of special interests.

An Atlanta Olympics, on the other hand, would be privately funded. The IOC always likes that. Hello, Peter Ueberroth.

Just to make a run at the Games, the Atlanta Organizing Committee has spent more than $7 million in two years. The money has been spent on, among other things, interactive videos of proposed Olympic venues, flights criss-crossing the globe and a splashy, five-volume leather-bound set of books detailing every possible reason why the Olympics should be held there.

There are billboards dotting the city pumping up the Olympic effort. The airport, one of the world's busiest, has been spruced up and it too showed signs of welcome to the IOC delegates. A dozen prominent Atlantans, people with money and time to spend, left their jobs to travel the world. Payne, an attorney who hasn't received a paycheck in three years, was the instigator of all this in 1987, looking for another project after raising money to build a new sanctuary for his church.

One of the first people Payne visited was Andrew Young, the onetime aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and former congressman and U.N. ambassador who then was Atlanta's mayor.

"I had two images of the Olympics," Young said during a recent interview. "I had the image of the successful Olympics and then I had the image of Montreal {still debt-ridden after the 1976 Games}. As mayor, I didn't want to do anything that I thought was going to leave the city in debt. But Billy said we'd do it as a private effort, with no government funds. I liked the idea."

He liked it so much he soon became organizing committee chairman and has become the most important player on the Atlanta team. The idea in the Olympic bidding war is to impress IOC members enough to win their votes. That involves hosting them in beautiful homes, flying them around in corporate jets and giving them elaborate gifts. It also means visiting the members in their homes.

When Young showed up at the doorstep, no introductions were necessary.

"There are 73 countries represented in the IOC and I've been to at least 60 of them in the course of my time in Congress or as U.N. ambassador," Young said. "The time that I spent at the U.N. was invaluable. I knew people in almost every country in the world and, in almost every country in the world, somebody knew me. Or if they didn't know me, they knew CNN {Cable News Network, headquartered in Atlanta}."

This was especially important in Africa. It is the hope of the Atlanta Organizing Committee that Young may end up swaying most of the 16 African IOC members.

"Africa looks good in that we have visited with every African Olympic committee member and I think all but one has been here to visit Atlanta," Young said. "All of them are very positive about Atlanta. I'm not counting votes because you can't count Olympic Committee votes. It's a secret ballot; people don't vote anything but their own heart and mind. But everyone in Africa knows Atlanta and feels good about Atlanta."

After his recent loss in Georgia's Democratic gubernatorial runoff, Young sent a letter to every IOC member, explaining that he still would be chairman of Atlanta's Olympic bid. And on a recent trip to eight African nations, he found support hadn't wavered with his defeat.

There is reason to like Atlanta. All but three Olympic venues are built or being built. The missing facilities are an Olympic stadium, a natatorium (swimming) and a velodrome (cycling). Atlanta is planning way ahead: The under-construction Georgia Dome, which will host the 1994 Super Bowl, would be the site of gymnastics and basketball at the Olympics.

There are 29 colleges and universities in Atlanta, with stadiums and dorm rooms available during the summer. It's like Los Angeles, only much more compact. It's believed Atlanta's venues are closer together than in any other city bidding for the Games.

Atlanta does have its problems. Its crime rate is high, and the IOC knows it and that fact has been used extensively vy Toronto's Henderson. It is located in the home state of Jimmy Carter, the president who ordered the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It also is located in the United States, and there is some sentiment within the IOC to avoid superpower nations entirely when selecting Olympic sites, so as to avoid potential boycotts.

The Atlanta committee acknowledges the concerns, but says every city comes with strings attached.

There is no way of knowing what will happen Tuesday. Two years ago at the IOC meeting in Seoul, prior to the start of the 1988 Summer Olympics, delegates selected the site of the 1994 Winter Games. There was speculation about which city was the favorite going in, but there was no doubt which was least favorite: Lillehammer, Norway.

Several ballots came and went before IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced the winner.

Lillehammer.