It began as the dream of a former University of Georgia football all-American named Billy Payne, who had just finished raising the money to build a new sanctuary for his church and was looking for something else to do.
It became a two-year, $7 million crusade to win the 1996 Summer Olympics for Atlanta, a quest many thought improbable until the last few months.
Yesterday, on a 51-35 fifth-ballot vote of the International Olympic Committee in Tokyo, it became a stark, stunning reality. Atlanta, the capital of the New South, is about to become the capital of the new Olympics.
The 1996 Summer Olympics -- the centennial celebration of the modern Games -- belong to Georgia. And it's no secret they earned it the old-fashioned way: With down-home hospitality, complete with violins at nearly every social function, and constant personal visits to almost anywhere in the world.
They also won the Games because of where they are, in the eastern half of the United States. That means a viewer-friendly time zone, which means more television money for the overflowing IOC coffers.
And Atlanta just might have benefited from the subtle support of the National Football League. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said yesterday during a luncheon with writers and editors at The Washington Post that one of the reasons the league placed the Super Bowl in Atlanta in 1994 was to help with its Olympics bid. Atlanta had to beat out Manchester, England; Toronto; Belgrade; Melbourne, Australia; and, finally, Athens.
"It was definitely part of our decision-making process that the Super Bowl would help them," Tagliabue said. "We spoke with the State Department and they told us it would be a plus if a major U.S. sports organization gave Atlanta a vote of confidence."
The Summer Olympics are coming back to the United States for the first time since 1984 in Los Angeles -- and coming back much sooner than most expected. With the next three Games set for European sites -- the Winter Games in Albertville, France in 1992 and Lillehammer, Norway in '94 and the Summer Games in Barcelona in '92 -- and the very likely scenario that the Games of the year 2000 will be in a unified Berlin, the IOC almost had to choose a site that considered the U.S. networks and the massive rights fees they'll pay.
For the next three Olympics, U.S. television is paying almost $1 billion. NBC is paying $401 million for the rights to the Barcelona Games, and CBS is paying $243 million for Albertville and $300 million for Lillehammer. The IOC receives about 10 percent of the money.
All of this was not lost on the Atlanta Olympic hopefuls. In Tokyo, Atlanta circulated a brochure with a picture of a TV on the cover and trumpeted the possibility for "record revenue sources for the Olympic movement."
There is no way to estimate how much extra money the IOC will reap from holding the Games in Atlanta, but educated guesses are that it could be $100 million more than if the host city were outside North America. The television bidding probably will be in the fall of 1992, after the Barcelona Games.
"I believe the bidding will be considerably in excess of the $300 million of Seoul and the $400 million of Barcelona," said Robert Wussler, the former CBS and Turner Broadcasting executive who heads the video entertainment unit of Comsat. "What happened in Los Angeles is ancient history now because there will be so many more opportunities coming out of Atlanta."
The Games are expected to be a financial windfall for Atlanta. According to the Atlanta Organizing Committee, they will generate $3.5 billion in economic activity for the area. An estimated 84,000 jobs will be created.
The committee figures, with private sponsorship and prudent management, the Games will turn a profit of $244 million, to be used to support amateur sports programs in Georgia. Another $200 million is expected in government revenues, and officials expect that money to go to programs for education, medical care and the homeless.
Andrew Young, AOC chairman, was asked in Tokyo whether American money was the key to the result. "We've got an expression in Georgia: 'That dog won't hunt,' " Young said. "There's no ground for that question, because after Los Angeles any Olympics anywhere is going to come out all right financially. The major source of income now is television revenue, and that doesn't change because the host city is in America."
The city or private investors will have to spend at least $1 billion over the next 5 1/2 years to get Atlanta ready for the Games. About $500 million will be needed for an Olympic village and natatorium (swimming facility) at Georgia Tech, as well as an Olympic stadium (next to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) for track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies and a velodrome (cycling stadium).
The Georgia Dome, under construction, will be the site of the '94 Super Bowl and will be the venue for Olympic basketball and gymnastics.
A group of a dozen Atlantans, most of whom were wealthy enough to quit their jobs for a couple of years and hit the road, visited IOC members throughout the world. Bobby Riordan, an insurance salesman, took three trips to Guatemala just to find one IOC member.