`WE started off in last place, but I feel confident that we're right up there at the top now,'' says Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Organizing Committee, speaking at last week's 14th Annual Olympic Academy held at Emory University in Atlanta. The academy is sponsored by the educational council of the United States Olympic Committee. Atlanta, long known for its boosterism, is competing against five other cities - Athens; Toronto; Melbourne; Belgrade; and Manchester, England - to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. The 89 members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will make their final decision by secret ballot in September in Tokyo.
Mr. Payne and the Atlanta Organizing Committee (AOC) say that along with Atlanta, the top contenders are Athens, Toronto, and Melbourne. Athens is still considered to be the sentimental favorite, especially since 1996 will be the centennial of the rebirth of the modern games.
But after the recent IOC meeting in Barcelona, which was the last opportunity for bidding cities to meet with a large number of delegates, the AOC is optimistic. The enthusiastic Payne says: ``It's been a long haul, but we've avoided any serious mistakes. We're going into Tokyo with a realistic chance of winning.''
Unlike some of the other cities, Atlanta already has the infrastructure - the highways and rapid transit system, an international airport, and the hotels - needed to accommodate the expected crowd. The city plans to build some new facilities - an 85,000-seat, open-air stadium, swimming complex, velodrome, and twin tower dormitories to house the athletes, coaches, and officials.
Payne says the members of the IOC ``are impressed with our plans and facilities. They have not expressed any doubt whatsoever about our capability to host the games.''
Atlanta, proud of its old-fashioned Southern hospitality and growing reputation as an international hub, has hosted two large groups of IOC delegates since September and received favorable comments. But the race is not over yet, and the next three months will be critical.
Though no more large meetings or events are scheduled, the AOC's goal is to have more delegates visit by September than any other bidding city in the history of the Olympics. And during the next three months, Payne and his immediate staff will continue to visit the delegates.
Indeed, during the recent conference at Emory, Ching-Kuo Wu, a delegate from Taiwan, said, ``The competition is tough, but I'm very impressed with the preparation work of Atlanta's committee and the support from people of all different age groups.''
Perhaps more than any of the other cities, Atlanta has enjoyed overwhelming community support. The three-year effort to win the Olympics has been marked by a widespread but carefully coordinated volunteer effort. Literally thousands of volunteers from dozens of different professions have been involved in hosting the delegates' visits and preparing the five-volume bid Payne delivered to the IOC last January.
Atlanta's staff is made up of 34 full-time volunteers and only six paid workers. President Payne resigned from his law practice, and others in leadership positions took extended leaves to become full-time volunteers.
Giving credit to the people of Atlanta, and, specifically, to volunteers, Payne says: ``We're the only city whose effort is almost entirely volunteer.''
While Melbourne has a budget of $15.6 million, and Toronto's is $13.6 million, Atlanta's budget is just $7 million, most of which has come from corporate and private donations.
But more than a third of the budget is going toward lobbying and promotional efforts, and close to $800,000 is being spent on transporting and entertaining delegates.
The host city gets worldwide recognition and an awesome prize. While the games will cost at least $1 billion to stage, the AOC estimates that the 16 days of events will generate at least $3.5 billion in economic activity.