Most Atlanta residents support holding the 1996 Summer Olympics in their city from Jul 19 through Aug 4. Business leaders expect the games will bring $7 billion to the city and surrounding regions. The city’s infrastructure has been improved, and many new buildings will be donated to the city.
The low-rise, cement-block structure in which Ed Taylor has run his printing business for the past 17 years sits alone in a dusty construction site hard by the commercial heart of downtown Atlanta. Until recently, Taylor’s place was surrounded by warehouses and auto-body shops. But in preparation for the Summer Olympics, those buildings were razed, mostly to make way for the city’s new Centennial Olympic Park. Coca-Cola Ltd., Atlanta’s most beloved conglomerate, is transforming the property around Taylor’s plant into a corporate theme park. While other area landholders sold or leased their sites to the giant soft-drink maker, Taylor was unable to strike a deal. The 70-year-old printer says he was ready to sell, but Coke was prepared to pay only for his land, not for his well-kept building or his moving costs. “It was simple-I could not move at my own expense,” Taylor says. “So they just decided to build around me.”
The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) and its corporate sponsors have pretty much had their way in the self-proclaimed capital of the New South. Polls say that the overwhelming majority of area residents supported the bid to host the July 19-to-Aug. 4 extravaganza. The business community expects the Games to inject $7 billion into the city and outlying regions before the closing ceremonies. And Atlanta’s notoriously boosterish civic leaders are eager to promote it as a “world-class city.” As a result, contractors are racing to finish $700 million worth of new housing and sports facilities, including the 85,000-seat Olympic Stadium. Road crews clog the already hardened downtown arteries in an effort to rejuvenate the sagging infrastructure. And although a roof support at the new aquatic centre collapsed last week, organizers claimed they were still on schedule. “It’ll be close,” says ACOG press chief Bob Brennan, “but we’ll get it done.”
Atlanta, which has promised to stage “the most memorable Olympic Games ever,” can already claim several firsts. It will be the first Olympics in which every country in the world is eligible to compete-there are no boycotts this year and, with the inclusion of North Korea late last year, no political outcasts. It is also the first Olympics to be financed entirely by the private sector-ACOG is raising the $2.3-billion cost of staging the Games through TV rights, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.
That is good news for local taxpayers, but not for fans who cling to any illusions of Olympic purity-get ready for the first Olympiad to boast “official” game shows, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. And every flat surface has been commandeered for advertising by the likes of McDonald’s, IBM and Budweiser. Atlanta may also achieve the dubious honor of being the hottest Games on record. Daytime highs during late July and early August average 32* with 90-percent humidity, and the U.S. National Weather Service is predicting a hotter-than-usual summer. “That is something that people coming here should be aware of,” warns Francois Carle, a consul in the Canadian consulate in Atlanta. “The heat and humidity-it can be very bad.”
For marathon runners and long-distance cyclists, those conditions will be especially severe. ACOG has mitigated some of the discomfort by providing air-conditioned athlete accommodations-another first-and competitors will have their choice of restaurants, a dance club and live performances by popular bands such as Hootie and the Blowfish, all within the secure confines of the Olympic Village. Organizers have also provided state-of-the-art competition venues, from the $280-million stadium where Canada’s sprint duo of Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin will vie for 100-m supremacy, to the $16-million rowing/kayaking courses on nearby Lake Lanier, where Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle will row for gold.
Undeterred by weather and cost, fans bought up the entire first issue of tickets-ranging from $8 for a spot in the baseball bleachers to $360 for a courtside view of the U.S. basketball Dream Team. Tickets to opening and closing ceremonies sold for between $270 and $800. Hotel space is scarce and expensive, so enterprising residents have made their homes available through ACOG at prices based on the properties’ assessed values.
Atlanta seemed an unlikely candidate to host the Centennial Games. Athens, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics, was the early favorite when the bidding process began in the mid-1980s. Toronto was also a contender, boasting strong government and corporate support. Billy Payne, the hard-driving lawyer who launched Atlanta’s bid in October, 1987, traded heavily on the city’s corporate clout, particularly from Coca-Cola, a worldwide Olympic sponsor. Then-Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, a onetime U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave the team a high profile among delegates before the vote by the International Olympic Committee’s worldwide membership.
Even with that endorsement, Atlanta scared some IOC power brokers. ACOG had absolutely no money in 1990-Payne had left his practice in 1987 and run the bid on a $2-million loan he took against some personal real estate holdings. Richard Pound, the Montreal lawyer and IOC board member, says that ACOG had to put off important matters such as starting construction of new sports facilities because it was so focused on the search for revenue. The IOC was also worried that, without some form of government support, Atlanta would have no safety net if its fund-raising efforts fell short. “I’m still a little concerned,” Pound says, “but as far as we can tell, it’ll be OK.”
Payne was convinced that ACOG did not need public money, and he is close to being proved correct. Still, it was not an easy sell. Several big U.S. companies such as Eastman Kodak, Visa and Xerox had already spent millions to become worldwide sponsors of the Olympics. And ACOG started knocking on corporate America’s doors just as the recession began. But 10 companies, including Atlanta-based NationsBank, AT&T and Sara Lee Corp., each paid $54 million to be Games Partners, and 23 other firms paid smaller sponsorship fees for a lesser profile. With the approximately $750 million it gets as its 60-percent share of TV rights fees, and more than $270 million in ticket revenues, ACOG claims it has now secured all but $266 million of its projected costs. Organizers expect the rest will come from a second wave of ticket sales.
International officials, fearing a heavy emphasis on the home audience, have warned ACOG that choruses of “Hi y’all!” will not quite satisfy foreign visitors. France, for instance, has complained that there are too few French-speaking staffers at ACOG headquarters. Pound stated the IOC’s position in a 1994 speech at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. “It is important to remember that the Olympic Games are an international event being held in the United States,” he said bluntly, “not an American event to which a number of people with exotic accents are being invited.”
As they madly dash toward readiness, organizers face some unseen difficulties. Ministers of inner-city churches want reimbursement for lost tithes because, they say, downtown congestion will keep congregation members away during the Games. And a street vendors’ association is suing the city and ACOG for a whopping $1.2 billion for being denied vending licences during the Games. Organizers were also quick to proclaim their city safe after taking a broadside from Georgia’s attorney general, Michael Bowers, who recently suggested he would feel safer walking the streets of Sarajevo than those of Atlanta. Note to visitors: FBI statistics for 1994 did indicate that Atlanta was America’s most dangerous city in terms of violent crime-although the number of murders has actually declined since peaking in the late 1980s.
Residents, however, say they are looking forward to playing host to the world, even if it means traffic mayhem for the summer. “People will bitch about this little thing or that,” says Angelo Fuster, a former executive assistant in the mayor’s office who now runs a private consultancy. “But there is also a great pride in the city. People here want to show it off, to put on a good show.” They also stand to inherit a rich legacy from the Games. ACOG is handing over $700 million worth of facilities, from the athletes’ village (new dormitories for local universities) to the Olympic Stadium (a new ball park for the Atlanta Braves) at no charge. Downtown condominiums, built to house sponsors and IOC officials, will become low-income rental apartments.
More importantly, area voters strongly endorsed a $203-million infrastructure bill to overhaul roads, bridges and other services, particularly in the downtown core of highrise hotels and convention centres. Those improvements, and new developments spurred by the Olympics, have injected life back into a downtown that, since the postwar migration to the suburbs, had become desolate after work hours. That, more than anything else, is why Ed Taylor is an Olympics booster all the way. “The things that are being done to the city, they might have been done eventually,” says the printer. “But this has got things done sooner, and it sure helps.”