The metal tube, with its intricate engravings and wooden handle, is numbered 128. From time to time, I touch it. But when I pick up the 31.5-inch-long piece of memorabilia, my mind rewinds to the summer of 1996.
Twenty-five years ago, my friend called and asked, “Don’t you want to run the torch?” The inquisitor was Billy Payne, the dreamer who had launched Atlanta’s bid for the Centennial Olympics. “Of course!” I replied. Billy laughed and said, “I thought you would.”
I had been so preoccupied as chairman of Athens 96 that I had forgotten to apply for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Earlier in Tokyo, when Atlanta was announced the winner of the Games UGA athletic director Vince Dooley, told his former All-SEC defensive end, “Billy, don’t forget us.” And he didn’t. Athens and UGA were the largest venue outside of Atlanta, hosting four events—volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics, and women’s and men’s soccer.
With the 2021 Games gearing up, I picked up my torch and began mentally jogging back through the memories:
- We had just moved to Athens. Double-barrel euphoria erupted in UGA President Chuck Knapp’s box on Sept. 22, 1990. The Bulldogs upset Alabama, 17-16. And to make the day even more glorious, Billy Payne was with us. Four days earlier, he’d been in Tokyo to hear International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch announce, “It’s Atlanta!”
- Walking out of Sanford Stadium, I congratulated Billy and asked, “Would you come to Jesup and tell your Olympic story?” Without hesitation, he said, “Sure.” And he did, along with another million commitments. What a man. What a friend.
- Hanging in our closets are two royal blue blazers, with special insignia patches. Billy asked Pam and me to be presidential ambassadors during the Games. International dignitaries paraded through our home for receptions and meals. And on several occasions, we enjoyed introducing our guests to grits. Yes, we did.
- One of Billy’s best-kept secrets of the Olympics was who would light the opening-ceremony cauldron. The crowd erupted in cheers when Muhammad Ali appeared with his torch. And we were there, in our blue blazers, testing the limits of our vocal chords.
- The darkest moment of 1996 Games was the murderous bombing of the Centennial Olympic Park. Our newspaper The Cherokee Scout, in Murphy, North Carolina, broke the story of the 2003 capture of suspected bomber Eric Rudolph. The Scout published 25,000 EXTRA editions within hours of arrest.
- That wasn’t the summer’s only explosion. Our home’s mailbox was blown to smithereens. I held the ankles of an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent as he hung out of our younger son’s upstairs bedroom window. The federal agent dug the bomb’s cap out of the exterior wall, just below Eric’s window. Fortunately, we were away when the bomb blasted. Billy was quick to call. He sighed when I reported no one was hurt.
- For every dastardly deed during the Olympics, there were thousands of joyous memories. One of my biggest laughs occurred when 80-something Fred Birchmore, an Athens fitness legend, was asked to run the torch. Fred’s book chronicles his bicycle ride around the world. Another claim to fame was his walking down the Washington Monument on his hands. When Fred was told his leg of the run was just an eighth of a mile, the wiry octogenarian scoffed, “Hell, I can run that far on my hands.”
For as long as I live, when I touch my Olympic torch, it will always be the summer of 1996.
Thank you, Billy Payne, for chasing your dream.
Dink NeSmith is the president of Community Newspapers, Inc. and was chairman of Athens ’96