The Olympic movement in Atlanta was an incredibly wonderful experience," says irrepressible Billy Payne, who's made his way in life as a lawyer specializing in putting together speculative land deals. Payne prides himself on being ahead of the game, he can see a million-dollar profit where others see only scrubby woods and fields. Just a year before Payne announced he was going after the Olympic Games, he spent an afternoon trudging some fields in Rockdale county, 50 kilometres out of Atlanta. They were part of a 56-acre parcel of land at a junction on Interstate 20 that runs eastwards all the way through Augusta and on into South Carolina. Payne saw a potential missed by other speculators and moved smartly to persuade one of his backers to take care of the price, $1.5 million (U.S.), and become his partner.
In the months that followed, Payne backed his judgment and added another 123 acres. This time the $2.1 million needed came from Gus Barkworth, who, the local paper had it, owned half the county and ran the rest. Payne was promised 35 per cent of the profits when the time was right to sell. An adjacent 116 acres of scrub and pine forest soon became available for $1 million. A group of investors put up the money and this time Payne got 20 per cent.
The deals done, Payne moved on. He launched the Georgia Amateur Athletic Foundation to bid for the Olympics, and at its first meeting in June 1987 he said, "I've already been asked several times, 'What is my angle?' My angle in this deal is the incalculable emotional high that will flow from the tears of joy that we all share (when we) hear the announcement that Atlanta and Georgia have been selected as a site for the summer Olympic Games."
Payne's dream to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, so we learn from dozens of press profiles recycling the same heroic cliches, was the challenge he set himself after a fundraising drive to build a sanctuary at St. Luke's Presbyterian Church, his place of worship in the leafy suburb of Dunwoody. The Games, he promised, would leave "a legacy of facilities and housing that will benefit this community, its young athletes and citizens for decades to come." But which community was he talking about?
"Between 1985 and 87, all we tried to do in our community was open church basements for the homeless to take shelter in," says Anita Beaty of Atlanta's task force on the homeless. "And we were trying to get folk to understand that it wasn't a problem of the aging white alcoholic, the vagrant image you have. This was about a younger population of African Americans, people who couldn't get work because the jobs had moved to the suburbs, people being displaced from housing."
They were on the street. In the years before the bid, the city lost 2,000 beds in cheap rooming houses. Beaty recalls her hero Andrew Young, later a three-term member of Congress, ambassador to the UN, mayor of Atlanta and, later still, co-leader of the bid with Billy Payne, telling "anecdotes of how when he first came to Atlanta as a young man to work with Dr. (Martin Luther) King, he could stay for two or three dollars a night in a rooming house."
In 1985, Beaty's task force reckoned there was a solid core of up to 5,000 homeless people sleeping on the streets of Atlanta, a city damned with America's second-highest poverty rate. Five years later, when Billy's boys secured the Games, there were 15,000 of them and they were no longer being left to rest in the parks or draped around heating ducts. The city had found new, temporary accommodation -- the old city jail.
"We were naive," says Beaty. "We didn't connect what was going on with the Olympic bid committee, the legislation that began to appear and the actions of the police. There was a guy who was getting regularly busted. He would be stopped and put against a fence and roughed up.'
And there were other new laws. "By 1987 Billy Payne's crowd were nothing if not ready to pass state laws and local ordinances that gave them the power to condemn property if they needed to. They had a vision of a great and beautiful city which didn't include poor people, and the Olympics gave them that excuse. Their idea of downtown looks more like Disney World or Dallas.
"Atlanta is a debutante with dirty tennis shoes, and she leans over and exposes them at every turn," says Beaty. What happened to the homeless when the posh folks from the IOC came a-visiting? "They were swept out of sight.'
Victory swept $1.7-billion worth of business into the hands of Billy and the boys. The Atlanta corporations that had stumped up the money for the bid were vindicated. The city network of public and private interests, which often appear to zigzag into each other's arms, was mobilized, and Billy's Beautiful Money Machine hummed into action.
He discarded his bid leader hat and took the leadership of the new Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), at a salary of $519,000. It was one of the highest in America for a chief executive of a non-profit organization -- and it went up by $249,000 over the next few years. The ACOG, a private foundation that would dramatically alter the city's towering skyline and lowly neighbourhoods, hand out millions of dollars on Olympic-related construction and pay several of its leaders enormous salaries, met in private.
The major players came from the pre-eminent law firm King & Spalding, alumni of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech, which absorbed $170 million in new construction, and, sensibly, the local construction industry. They all knew each other well, had done business together for decades and could think of no one better qualified to share Olympia's gold.
At first, ACOG thought it was business as usual and began granting contracts to friends at City Hall. They were taken aback, surprised, a little discomfited, when the public started paying attention to how the Olympic windfall was being cut up.
An outcry stopped the first share-out, so the politicians had to settle for their kin being employed by the committee. Coca-Cola appeared to sit back, raising its head occasionally when the exploitation of the majority African-American community became embarrassing enough to figure in the foreign press. Ethics committees were set up by the public oversight board and the ACOG, but they didn't seem overworked.
The Atlanta boys had studied the Olympic blueprint. First, choose a neighbourhood with no sports venues. Set up a committee of politicians and businesspeople and announce your Olympic campaign, motivated by love of country and municipality.
Get rich Make it private, so nosy reporters can't find dirt. Talk a lot about Olympic idealism. Behave amorally to obtain the contract to organize the event; if caught, claim it was done for the community's benefit. Pass dream laws giving yourself power to seize property for commercial redevelopment -- in the public interest. Mix public and private money, divide up the contracts between your friends. Get rich.
Ten months later, the new laws came. The Quality of Life Ordinances outlawed homeless people sleeping in derelict buildings, being in a parking lot without owning a car and begging any way the police didn't like.
"And then," says Beaty, "they opened the first new Olympic facility, the municipal jail. It over-crowded the day it opened." Beaty's task force took the city to court, but had to go to Boston in New England, far from the South, to find a law firm prepared to take on the work.
The churches and volunteer groups came together and formed the Olympic Conscience Coalition. "Our declared aim," says Beaty, "was to hold the line on funding emergency services. We lost. Programs were bled of money. Money was spent on cosmetic work, on the streets that led to venues -- on streetscapes, not on proper renovation or new homes for people without any. They were like set paintings in the movies."
Soup kitchens came under pressure to feed fewer people, because the authorities didn't want visibly homeless men to be given any encouragement.
Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell took reporters to the home of 80-year-old Alberta Mitchell in the decrepit Summerhill neighbourhood, in the shadow of the new stadium. Her grubby white house had been paint-ed pink. It would make good pictures.
The reporter from Associated Press went inside and found the electrical wiring was so dangerous that the upstairs supply had been disconnected. But look what the Olym-
pics had done for Alberta. She didn't need her own lighting -- the stadium
floodlights had plenty to spare, illuminating her bedroom at night!
With all that Olympic idealism pumping out of the ACOG offices downtown, you might think there'd be a meeting of minds between Payne and Beaty's Olympic Conscience Coalition.
Their first bodily meeting was in the boardroom. "He was saying social services were none of his business, but he and his people weren't going to negatively impact on what we did. And we said, 'There's already been some diversionary impact on resources and we've had this criminalization of people on the streets.'"
Beaty eyeballed the Olympian. "'You can, in your position, declare publicly that this is not to happen, give us something to hang our hats on,'" she recalls.
The truth "And he kinda rose up, pushed himself up from the table and leaned forward to me and said, 'Anita, you and I have never agreed on anything' -- and I looked round to see who he was talking to, because we'd never met before."
Then Beaty leaned toward him and replied, "'We have no power, we have no money, we have only our experiences and what we know. And we are going to tell the truth. And if there are continued arrests and we see a worsening of the condition, we will tell the world.'"
The oldest public housing project in America, Techwood Homes, built slap up against Coke's world headquarters and Georgia Tech, would celebrate its 60th birthday in the Olympic year.
But it stood in the way of a "sanitized corridor" running through to CNN headquarters and the city centre, a dream long cherished in the business community. Beaty noticed from the late 1980s that as units fell vacant they were boarded up.
And then popped up The Plan. Half the 800 houses would be knocked down. Of the remainder, after refurbishment, only a fifth would be reserved for poor families, and strict new credit and criminal-record checks would exclude many who most needed the units.
Beaty reckons only five of the original families remain in what have become middle-to-upper-income apartments. Georgia Tech got new student dorms, built with public funds. That was a good piece of business. The excuse? For a few weeks they would be the Olympic village.
Former president Jimmy Carter came into town with his answer to the city's ills. His Atlanta Project, taking care of poverty with volunteers and his own political weight, was, says Beaty,
"a colossal failure.
There was a kind of
noblesse oblige that permeated that whole effort. It was the do-
good white community coming into the poor community to say, 'Don't worry, don't organize, don't push for your rights. Let us provide leverage for you.' It let the steam out of the kettle in terms of organized protests around the Olympics."
Caught glimpse IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, on a visit to Atlanta, caught a glimpse of a neighbourhood protest against the new Olympic stadium and showed instantly that he sensed the community's mood.
"Always, you have problems after getting the Games. But I believe this community must be very happy to have these Games." He paid ritual tribute at Martin Luther King's tomb.
When the great man was murdered in 1968, Samaranch himself was a high functionary of Spain's Franco fascist regime, whose cops treated demands for the ballot box and free speech just like the goons with clubs had treated King and his cohorts in the South.
At a gala night to welcome Samaranch's retinue to town, Payne erupted, "I feel the same love and devotion for this family that I feel for my own." Now was the time, with the world's media on hand, to pump up a mythology of peace and love, distracting attention from Atlanta's dirty tennis shoes.
It didn't work. It wasn't only the foreign reporters who'd been filming and photographing poverty and exclusion in the neighbourhoods.
The organizers became increasingly embattled as all but the local media poked holes in Payne's preposterous claims about a universal, inclusive idealism that could only be practised behind chain-link fences and security guards.
The broken promises went on. The city had been persuaded to lend its name to these private Olympics in return for a profit -- Payne called it a legacy -- of nearly $160 million to bring sports facilities to inner-city kids.
Sorry, said Payne, keeping the ACOG books close to his chest, we ain't got no money after all. His private committee was paying him $670,000 a year at the time.