The Bizarre Backstory to Atlanta Winning the 1996 Olympics

Note: I made a gymnastics themed intro (LINK HERE) for this article that I recommend only for fans of the sport.

When it comes to American sports, beating the Soviet Union in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics is included in every conversation of iconic sports upsets. But for me personally, I think there’s another iconic Olympic upset that doesn’t get talked about like it should. Largely because strictly speaking, it wasn’t a sporting event. It was an upset that came at the hands of sports administrators rather than athletes. The event I’m talking about was the United States winning the bid to host the 1996 Olympics.

It was perhaps the most long shot bid that ever succeeded and faced an abnormally high number of obstacles if it wanted to win. It’s likely various Atlanta administrators didn’t even think they would win. But to the surprise of everyone, they did.

To understand why the United States even launched such an unlikely bid in the first place that seemed doomed to fail from the start, one needs to understand the Olympic bidding history of the United States. The United States has served as an Olympic host more often than any other country. But when looking at the history of American Olympic bids, an interesting pattern emerges.

The United States has hosted or is slated to host the Summer Olympics on five occasions. But three of those Summer Olympics (1904, 1932, and 1984) were uncontested bids. The United States had won by default after no one else was willing to bid. The 2028 Olympics that will be held in the United States can also be described as uncontested. Down to two host cities, the IOC decided to award both cities the next two upcoming Olympics. The United States had won the bid, but like the previously mentioned examples, it hadn’t technically beaten another city in the process of winning its bid.

There have been only seven bids for the Summer Olympics that were won in an uncontested fashion, four of them were won by the United States. So why has United States frequently won more uncontested bids than everyone else combined? It’s because historically, the United States bids on nearly every Summer Olympics it can and almost always loses. But when the IOC is in a jam and can’t find any other countries willing to bid, it turns to that routine American bid to salvage the situation. The United States has been something of a safety net for the Olympic bidding process, a dependable country when the IOC is in crisis, rejected and overlooked when things are running smoothly.

The United States does not struggle when it comes to winning bids at the Winter Olympics. Bids on the Winter Olympics are less competitive due to climate restrictions and being viewed as less prestigious than a Summer Olympics. The United States bidding on nearly every Olympics, losing most of them, and winning only when the bid is uncontested is a phenomenon that occurs only in regards to the Summer Olympics.

To put in context as to just how frequently the United States bids on the Summer Olympics, it has bid on 21 of 33 Olympics. Of the 12 times the United States didn’t bid, 11 of them came in Olympic quads where it was impractical to bid.

-Four non-bids occurred in the quad immediately following America serving as Olympic host. (1904, 1936, 1988, and 2000)

-Four more non-bids occurred in the second quad after America served as an Olympic host. (1908, 1940, 1992, and 2004)

-Two non-bids came when the Olympic movement was in its infancy and it was impractical to host a sporting event of European origin across the Atlantic. (1896 and 1900)

-Another non-bid was the 2008 Olympics when the United States was three Olympics quads removed from serving as a host. It still would have constituted an extremely short turnaround time.

That leaves only the 2020 Olympics where the United States opted not to bid when it was in their strategic interest to do so. But even then there had been a reason for the a non-bid from the United States. The United States failed to submit a bid in response to the IOC attempting to lower the percentage of revenue the United States Olympic Committee collects from funds generated during an Olympic games.

It would be accurate to say the United States has bid on every Summer Olympics where it was practically possible to submit a bid, and even in a couple of instances where it was unpractical. To put the number of “21 bids” into further context, no other nation has reached ten bids. Only two other nations have gone beyond seven bids.

The United States has a history of putting up long shot bids that were doomed to fail from the start on a regular basis. Atlanta-1996 emerged as simply another one of these long shot bid attempts. The only difference, it had inadvertently managed to win.

Atlanta was facing an uphill battle from the start. They were facing the stigma of being an American city. The United States is simply put an unpopular option for the IOC which was going to be a challenge Atlanta had to overcome. But that issue paled in comparison to the biggest obstacle of all, the United States had only just recently hosted an Olympics.

The decision on who would host the 1996 Olympics was going to be made in 1990. Any American bid would have to explain why they should be given another Olympics after having hosting both the Summer and Winter Olympics in the 1980s. No other country had come anywhere close to a turnaround time of 12 years in between hosting the Summer Olympics.

But there was one final problem Atlanta-1996 would have to overcome. A problem that would paradoxically be both a massive roadblock to Atlanta winning the 1996 Olympics, but also the reason it inevitably did. And that problem was Greece.

The 1996 Olympics were going to occur 100 years after the very first Olympics were held in 1896. What could be more ideal and more symbolic than to have such a significant anniversary occur in the very country that inspired the creation of the modern Olympics? The centennial made Athens-1996 a juggernaut bid, the clear favorite, and its victory seemingly so inevitable, you might as well have written their name in pen.

Never before had a city been such a favorite in an Olympic selection process featuring multiple cities, and that would end up playing to Atlanta’s favor. Athens-1996 was such a juggernaut, that it had scared away all the premier cities who would have otherwise bid on the Olympics. Cities like Tokyo, Paris, London, and Rome were out. This had even helped Atlanta win the domestic bidding process to be the chosen city for America’s bid.

Starting with the 1960 Olympics, the IOC limited the bidding process to only one city per country. Since then every city chosen to be America’s lone bid was among the five largest cities in the United States. Atlanta would be the lone exception, in 1990 it was only the 36th largest American city in the United States census. A fact that had received criticism as it was labeled a “second tier” city.

The 1996 Olympics would be the quad of the anniversary bids. Greece had started the trend with their bid being linked to the 100 year anniversary of the 1896 Olympics. Canada was hedging their bid as being the 20th anniversary of the 1976 Olympics. Australia’s bid was intended as the 40th Anniversary of the 1956 Olympics. Only the United States, Great Britain, and Yugoslavia were not putting forward “anniversary” bids. Most of the other bids had come from cities that were labeled “second tier” like Atlanta had been. Toronto, Melbourne, Manchester, and Belgrade.

With communism collapsing in Europe, Yugoslavia was the first city eliminated. The IOC would ultimately dodge a bullet by avoiding having an Olympics located in a country that was about to be torn apart by war and ethnic cleansing. That left Greece facing four remaining countries that were all Anglosphere nations. Ironically, every Anglosphere nation that had a population large enough to host an Olympics (for example not New Zealand) had put forth a bid on the 1996 Olympics.

The presence of the Anglosphere is where Greece’s juggernaut Olympic bid would start to fall apart. As each Anglosphere nation was eliminated, most of their votes kept getting redistributed to another Anglosphere nation in the next round of voting. As each round progressed Athens first witnessed their lead dwindle, and then lost their lead altogether. By the final round of voting Atlanta had won in convincing fashion with a 51-35 vote.

Even as Athens was imploding Atlanta’s victory looked uncertain. Atlanta had finished in third place during the second round. The early elimination of Great Britain was a boon for the United States. One of the reasons the United States is an unpopular choice for the IOC is geography. The North American continent is geographically isolated from most of the world and that is often what kills American bids in mid-round voting.

In mid-round voting for the 1996 Olympics Atlanta’s closest rivals were Canada and Australia. Both countries had the same problem when it came to geographical concerns. Through no work of its own, the United States had managed to neutralize its Achilles’ heel. But Atlanta hadn’t just fallen backwards into winning the 1996 Olympics. The city had been highly innovative and much of its win was the result of Atlanta outsmarting and outmaneuvering its competition. Per the New York Times.

Atlanta brought computerized graphics and videos and a delegation of 300 people as part of its $7 million drive, perhaps the most elaborate and expensive bid in history. Also shown to the Olympic committee this morning was a special appeal for support by President Bush. But a surprising and crucial factor also appeared to be the work of Andrew Young, the former Mayor of Atlanta, who had lobbied hard among African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries based on his contacts as a former chief delegate to the United Nations in the Carter Administration.

Greece’s entire Olympic bid was rooted in historical symbolism and the country had done little to establish confidence that it had viable plans to handle infrastructure, facilities, security, and transportation. A pressing concern for a country that lacked the population and economic demographics of a modern Olympic host. Greece had to ensure that despite being a small country, it could handle the duties of being an Olympic host.

Its victory had seemed so certain, that Athens had become overconfident and struggled with complacency. Greece seemed to have placed its entire bid on “being Greece,” a mentality that not only left it unprepared, but had alienated IOC voters.

There were also signs of some resentment over Athens’s demanding that it be named as the site of the Olympics because of its ”historical right due to its history,” in the words of Spyros Metaxa, a businessman who is president of the Athens Olympic Bid Committee.

Athens would learn from its mistakes. One year after the confetti stopped falling in Atlanta, in 1997 Athens tried again. This time they won. Athens would return the the Olympics on the 108th anniversary of the 1896 Olympics. The longest turnaround time in between a country hosting two Summer Olympics. The United States hosting in 1984 and 1996 remains the record for the shortest time between two Summer Olympics being hosted by the same country.

To this day Atlanta remains the smallest city (according to the United States census) to be America’s top nomination for a Summer Olympic host. The United States has lost the bidding process 16 times, won in an uncontested fashion four times, and the only time it won in a traditional fashion on 21 attempts came due to the ludicrous chain of events in what was the most bizarre Olympic bid to have ever succeeded.

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