"We want the games! We want the games!" people shouted in the streets of Atlanta.
Atlanta wanted to become more international. It was trying to figure out what to do next, and how it could share itself with the world.
Two years into its Olympic effort, Atlanta had done just that. It was an underdog city now among the finalists for the 1996 Olympic games.
"If they didn't win...they laid some things on the table and said, 'We could be a contender.' That was enough for a lot of people, because I think the consensus was, 'It's not gonna happen,'" former 11Alive journalist Mike Zakel said.
While cautious, there was a confidence among the bid's leaders following an overflow of outreach to the voting delegates.
“People didn’t know we were doing well going into Tokyo, because we didn’t tell anybody, but we knew. We knew we made the friendships that we wanted to, and we were hopeful and I would say a bit confident that those friendships would result in a positive outcome,” Billy Payne, whose idea it was to bring the games to Atlanta, said.
“Two years ago, we were having to go up to people and almost annoy them to get any attention. Now some of the most important people in the Olympic movement come over to us, greet us, treat us like family,” former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young said.
“I think it was only as the vote in Tokyo was getting close that people began to seriously consider, ‘My goodness, could this really happen?’” former 11Alive journalist Marc Pickard said.
The committee had to travel to the other side of the Earth to Tokyo, the site where the International Olympic Committee would name the ’96 Olympic host. As the summer neared fall, the Atlanta bid team flew to Japan – flanked by volunteers and secret weapons like Albert Smith and the Marriott Marquis maître d known as “Smitty.”
“The job I had was to take care of the hospitality suite,” Smitty said. “I would make sure they get Coca-Cola, if they want a beer, if they want a soda, that was my job. I would make it happen.”
While folks like Smitty smooth-talked the delegates, the leaders prepared their final push.
“Atlanta’s got its arms around it," former Atlanta Maynard Jackson said, "prepared to put on the best Olympics this world has ever seen.”
This close to achieving the unthinkable, and for maybe the first time, its leaders considered the question: What if they didn’t?
“The 36 hours preceding that, I had had a panic attack," Payne said. "And they had to put me to bed in the hotel in a room. I wasn’t staying in with Martha…just separate me and hide me, really.”
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Suppose we don’t make it. How are we going to carry on for another four years? And can we carry on for another four years?' I was not ready to give up,” Young said.
They fought the nerves and made a final presentation.
They gathered with the other bid teams, from Manchester, Melbourne, Belgrade, Toronto and Athens for the announcement.
While they sat in Tokyo, a crowd of thousands gathered at Underground Atlanta.
Behind closed doors, the voting took place. One-by-one, Atlanta’s opponents were eliminated. First Belgrade, then Manchester, then Melbourne, then Toronto. The final two: Athens and Atlanta.
Next came the head of the IOC, Juan Antonia Samarach, to make the announcement and say that words now immortalized in Atlanta's history.
“The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of … Atlanta.”
“We just went, ‘Ah!’" Smitty said. "I could not control myself. I lost it.”
“I put my hands together and said, ‘Thank you, God,’” Young said.
“The impossible dream has been achieved. Nothing is impossible,” Jackson said.
“This proves that anything on earth is possible if you try hard enough,” Payne said.
Atlanta was about to go big.
“I’ve always known Atlanta was the greatest city in the world. Now, the whole world knows Atlanta’s the greatest city in the world,” one fan said witnessing the announcement.
“People were ecstatic," Zakel said. "And then when we were back for the parade, I began to get a sense that, ‘No, this really is real.’”
“When we went down Peachtree, it was like, ‘Oh God.’ I was like we had won the World Series. It was a tremendous day. It made look good," Smitty said.
“It was by the grace of God and your racial harmony that you all won this bid, and don’t you forget it,” Young said.
The coming days and months would bring planning, push, and progress. The coming years would bring the Olympics themselves. This moment was about the arrival, an underdog city becoming the grandest of champions.
“To see it actually happen was-I think there was a sense of affirmation, you know. They did it, we did it, and isn’t that cool? Zakel said.