Arts

Andrew Young On 1996 Olympics: ‘We Were Working Together’

Andrew Young recalls events surrounding the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Andrew Young recalls events surrounding the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Credit Alison Guillory / WABE
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Andrew Young is a lion of the civil rights movement, former U.S. congressman, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, in the late 1980s, the mayor of Atlanta. A small group, led by Billy Payne, recruited Young’s support to try to bring the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta.

Q: Do you remember when you very first heard the notion of Atlanta possibly hosting the Olympics?

A: I do. There was a little scuttlebutt outside my office. My secretaries and assistants, administrators were arguing whether or not to tell me about it.

Q: (Laughs) And what year was that? The late ’80s?

A: That was in ’88…’87 [or] ’88. All they knew about the Olympics was that Montreal was still $700 million in debt from [the] 1976 [Olympic Games]. And they said, “No, he loves the Olympics, and he’ll want to bring the Olympics here. And it would be the worst thing he could do for his career.”

Q: Did you want to bring the Olympics here as soon as you heard about, or did you think it a more fanciful notion?

A: They didn’t even want me to meet with the group. And I insisted that we set up a meeting.

The Olympics have always been a major influence in my life. When I was 4 years old, the Nazi party was on the corner of my house; the headquarters was 50 yards from where I was born. And my father was explaining to me why these people were “heiling” Hitler and singing “Deutschland Uber Alles.” And they had on the brown shirts and their swastikas. And my father said, “Nazism is a form of white supremacy, and white supremacy is a sickness. And you don’t get upset or worry about sick people. Don’t let them get you angry or upset, because then you can catch the sickness.” He explained it to me in such a way that I’ve forever been grateful.

This was ’36, 1936, and I was 4 years old. So he took me to see the Movietone News version of the Olympics. And Jesse Owens won the first race. And Hitler was to have given him the medal, and instead Hitler and all of his storm troopers left the stadium. And my father said, “But you see: Jesse Owens didn’t let that get him upset; he just went on and won three more gold medals.” (Laughs) It was one of the earliest moments in life I remember.

Q: You know Atlanta so well. How did you, at that time, think Atlanta would meet the challenge of the Olympic Games?

A: I had known Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles. And one of the things he said was that the best thing that happened to Los Angeles was the City Council voted against the Olympics. And because they voted themselves out, that meant that he and Peter Ueberroth could put together a private nonprofit corporation, and they ran a surplus. And when I presented that, which is what they [the Atlanta organizing group] were thinking about anyway, I said, “I’d be glad to work with you.” I was sort of ex-officio co-chair of the committee until my term as mayor was over.

I had read the little booklet on the bid process. And there were 85 members of the International Olympic Committee. They represented 72 countries. I had been to 55 of those countries, or I knew somebody in those countries that I thought, “We could get 55 votes.” It turned out we got 53 votes. Two people that I was counting on were elderly and died before we got to Tokyo. I mean, it was a natural for me, because the Olympics had meant so much to me, and then looking at the book, it was a done deal. I knew we could get the Olympics. I did wonder how we were going to pay for it.

Q: On the day it was announced we got the games, what was your first thought?

A: My first thought was, “Where do we go from here?” And you get a letter saying, “You have been awarded the Centennial Olympic Games of 1996. Oh, and by the way, as the winner, you owe us $1.5 million for the victory party.” (laughs) And we were broke. (laughs)

Q: So what did you do?

A: Well, the European national stations had spent $30 million for the Olympics, previous Olympics, and we said they’re gonna have to do better than that….

Q: For the broadcast rights.

A: For the broadcast rights. The U.S. was spending $500 million, $600 million. [Silvio] Berlusconi, who’s been the prime minister of Italy, had just put together a European private [broadcast] network. And the rumor was out that he was going to offer us $300 million. The European broadcast called and said, “Look, would you take $270 million from us now in advance, up front?” We said, “Yes!” (laughs)

Q: In all fairness, it wasn’t perfect.

A: People said we were too commercial. But we deliberately wanted … I wanted everybody who could sell a T-shirt or a button or a cap or anything…. So the commercial part we plead guilty to and are proud of.

Q: I’m talking about the [Centennial Olympic Park] bombing.

A: The bombing? I didn’t find out about it until about 1 o’clock in the morning. And the first place I went was down to Grady [Memorial Hospital]. The amazing thing to me was the people who had been wounded were so positive about the way they were being treated at Grady Hospital.

And the next crisis was would the volunteers show up, or would they be afraid? By 6 o’clock in the morning, everybody was on duty.

Q: Twenty years later, what do you think the greatest legacy is?

A: The Olympics was the announcement to the world that, “This is a world class city that you have never heard of.” And the legacy is that we fulfilled what Henry Grady [19th century Atlanta journalist and orator] said a long time ago that “Atlanta is a brave and beautiful city.”

We used to say in the ‘60s we were a “city too busy to hate.” And nobody believed us because they said, “You’re just like everybody else,” which was true. Until they came here and they realized we were working together. And were a city that was ethnically diverse, male and female, and we were all in it together as volunteers. And that was unusual: people remarked that we went about this different than anybody had ever done it before.

Andrew Young currently leads the Andrew Young Foundation, which works to promote and develop leadership, human rights, education and health in Atlanta and around the world.