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Looking back on Atlanta Games

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. Hard to believe. I blinked my eyes, and a decade had passed since I was part of the management team at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. I served as managing director - communications and government relations.

To call the Centennial Games the "Atlanta" Games is a misnomer. Some of the finest Olympic moments occurred not in Dysfunction Junction, but out in the state. For example, there was never a more beautiful sight than Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia, where the men's and women's soccer finals were held. In fact, more spectators watched the women's soccer finals in Athens than had ever witnessed any women's event in history. That's good stuff.

One of my favorite venues was the Olympic rowing venue in Gainesville. Many other locations begged, pleaded, cajoled and sometimes threatened us for an Olympic venue. If they got it, they immediately began whining about the traffic problems the venue would cause them, the cost of police overtime, the inconvenience to the locals, the need for us to hire somebody's no-account brother-in-law and for us to pay for everything. Not Gainesville. They were great to work with.

The Games drew special-interest groups like a barnyard draws flies. Our efforts to stage the yachting venue in Savannah were held up interminably because of the perceived danger to nesting wood storks. Why the storks gave a tinker's damn about yachting was never fully explained, but the media made it sound like the end of civilization as we know it. The solution, of course, was to hire the complaining environmentalists and the problem would magically go away. Funny how that works.

The city of Atlanta, as stated ad nauseum, did a poor job of preparing to be on the world stage. The city was too small-minded, race-obsessed and utterly devoid of leadership in the government, the media and the business community. Traffic snarls, tacky souvenir shacks, city officials claiming they would beam ads off the moon - you can imagine how that played with the national media - and too many people intent on turning a quick buck off the Games conspired to make the city look like a bad joke. Fortunately, the Atlanta newspapers knew right where to lay the blame. When the Games were over, a reporter opined that the problems had occurred because I was "arrogant." Being called arrogant by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is like being called fat by a sumo wrestler.

There were many unsung heroes: There were the 50,000 volunteers who worked tirelessly to help stage the Games; even today I hear from people around the country about how great the volunteers were. There were the hard-working ACOG staff, who gave up several years of their lives to make the Games happen. Then-Gov. Zell Miller was indispensable in getting us funds and manpower to operate outside the venues, and he ran interference for us with the Feds. Miller worked me over pretty good a couple of times, but he came through with what we needed to stage the Games. The 2 million fans who refused to be intimidated by the Olympic Park bombing had a great time and were themselves heroes. They were here to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event and to soak up the experience, and they did.

The biggest heroes, of course, were the 10,000 men and women from 197 countries who had trained a lifetime for a few moments of glory in Atlanta. Eighty percent were eliminated in their first competition, but that really didn't matter. They were and always will be Olympians.

Finally, I will be forever blessed for having known and worked with Billy Payne, ACOG's founder and CEO. He saw the goodness in the Olympic movement that the rest of us frequently missed.

I am asked constantly, would I do it again? Would I endure the pressure, the long hours, the meanness, the squabbles, the bombing and all the second-guessing to help stage the Olympic Games in Georgia? I honestly don't know. All I know is that the experience was like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. It sure felt good when it was over.

Contact Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net or at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139. Visit his Web site at www.dickyarbrough.com. His column appears on Saturday.