It’s been 20 years since Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympic Games, an event that ultimately led to a second — and third — career for Dick Yarbrough.
The former vice-president of BellSouth became the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games’ managing director for communications and government relations, and that led later to his start as a columnist. His views now appear before 1 million readers a week, including those in the Effingham Herald.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 20 years since the Olympic Games were held in Georgia,” Yarbrough said at Thursday’s Effingham County Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. “It was an interesting experience.”
Atlanta’s Olympic dream started in 1990 with eight people. By the time of the closing ceremonies Aug. 4, 1996, the organization had grown to more than 100,000, with 50,000 staff and 50,000 volunteers.
“We operated for three weeks as a mid-size Fortune 500 and disappeared,” Yarbrough said. “You talk about a management issue; that’s a management issue.”
The Atlanta Games brought in more than 10,000 athletes from nearly 200 countries, and they set 32 world records and 211 Olympic records. The organizing committee raised $1.7 billion, with no local tax revenues used and sold 9 million tickets to Olympic events.
“That’s more than Barcelona and Los Angeles combined,” Yarbrough said. “We sold more tickets to women’s events than Barcelona sold tickets.”
What helped, he said, was hosting the women’s soccer finals at Sanford Stadium, packing in more than 100,000.
“It was a magnificent venue, even if Vince had to take the hedges out,” Yarbrough added, referring to then-University of Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley.
While Dooley’s wife Barbara gave the former UGA football coach “fits about the hedges,” Yarbrough said his time with the Olympic movement was not easy.
“That was a seven-day-a-week job, almost 24 hours a day, very intense, a lot of problems, a lot of issues, a lot of travel,” he said. “Finally, it wore me out. It was beginning to affect my health.”
His doctor told his wife Jane to let him unwind when he’s at home, let him enjoy a nice glass of wine, try not to disagree with him and let him feel like he’s in control.
“I asked her, ‘what did the doctor say?’” Yarbrough recalled. “She said, ‘you’re gonna die,’” he added tongue-in-cheek.
Of the 10,000 athletes who took part in the Atlanta Games, nearly 80 percent were eliminated in their first competition, he said.
“That means who train all their lives and make an Olympic team and in their first heat, their first match, their first set, their first whatever, they’re eliminated,” Yarbrough said, “and that’s the end of their Olympic participation.”
But he noted that Billy Payne, the ACOG chairman who now is chairman at Augusta National Golf Club, said no one can take away their status as an Olympian.
“Remember this — they will forever more be an Olympian,” Yarbrough recounted of what Payne said to him. “So no matter what happens, they go back to their home country and they will say they he or she was an Olympian.”
Yarbrough told the tale of Tanzanian marathoner John Akhwari, who was the last finisher in the 1968 Mexico City Games. Long after the medal winners crossed the finish line, a disheveled Akhwari, missing a shoe, entered the stadium and made the last lap before hitting the mark. The distinguished late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called it “the greatest athletic event he’d ever seen,” Yarbrough said.
Documentary filmmaker Bud Greenspan captured the finish and years later, finally met Akhwari, telling him it was the most courageous thing he’d ever seen, Yarbrough added, since he was so far behind and had no chance of winning. Akhwari, now an Olympic coach for his native Tanzania, replied, “I came from a very poor country. They didn’t send me there to start the marathon. They sent me there to finish it.”
“Those are the kinds of stories that come out of the Olympics,” Yarbrough said.
Two years after the Games, the Atlanta Business Chronicle approached Yarbrough to write a reflection upon the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympiad, which Atlanta won over Toronto, Tokyo, Athens, Belgrade, Manchester, England, and Melbourne, Australia.
“I wrote this column two years later and said Atlanta was not capable of handling the Games,” he said, citing then-Mayor Bill Campbell as a problem and local media that ignored many of the problems. “The only thing Atlanta was good at was bragging. Charlotte took all our banks.”
Yarbrough was on his way to Scotland for a family vacation when it hit print. His voicemail filled up, and his last message was from former Gov. Joe Frank Harris, who hailed from Cartersville.
“It got a lot of publicity. People were talking about it,” he said. “I got to Scotland and didn’t realize what kind of stir it caused. Joe Frank said, ‘Dick, Elizabeth and I want to offer you asylum in Bartow County.’”
Yarbrough said he hoped the message of the Olympics finally can be realized.
“It is a great thing, when people will come together from countries that don’t even have a relationship with each other,” he said, “and you see them playing video games together, laughing together. You hope the Olympic movement will one day bring about the kind of peace we always said it could. It is the greatest peacetime event of the 20th century.”