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Atlanta's Olympic legacy

When Atlanta was awarded the Olympics 22 years ago, it was forever changed. For better or worse is still being debated.

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"Flair across America" between the Georgia Dome and Philips Arena - MAX BLAU
  • Max Blau
  • "Flair across America" between the Georgia Dome and Philips Arena

The entire city was on edge, brimming with anticipation. It was September 18, 1990, and thousands were crowded outside Underground Atlanta as six cities around the world listened to a broadcast from Tokyo to see which finalist had been awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics. After a ponderous buildup, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch opened an envelope that contained the winning city's name.

Haltingly, Samaranch said what many would consider the four most important words in the city's history: "[T]he city of ... Atlanta!"

The city erupted with cheers. The delegates on hand alternately wailed and sobbed. That evening, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a headline on the front page that read, "City explodes in thrill of victory." Halfway down the page, a secondary headline for a related article noted: "We finally won something!"

It was the biggest upset in Olympic history as Atlanta shocked the world by defeating five other cities — included a flabbergasted Athens, Greece — in its quest to host the Centennial Olympics. Atlanta staged the ultimate heist, joining St. Louis and Los Angeles as just the third American city to host the summer games.

Twenty-two years later, our unlikely Olympic legacy remains entwined with the city's identity. The importance of holding a summer Olympics can be understood by looking at previous host cities — a short list includes Paris, London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Tokyo, Mexico City, Moscow, Seoul, Sydney, and Beijing. Atlanta's Olympic bid victory offered a pivotal chance to redefine the way Atlanta would be seen and remembered. With Samaranch's announcement, the city embarked on a transformative journey from an embattled regional capital to — arguably — a vibrant world-class city.

Atlanta reinvented itself in preparation for the games, undergoing changes that many say benefit the city to this day. Iconic landmarks such as Turner Field and Centennial Olympic Park helped spur a new era of tourism. Much of the metropolitan area received a face-lift as the result of increased economic development and policy changes in support of the summer games.

In one of Atlanta's defining moments, however, commercial exploits and tragic violence cast a shadow over the spotlight. As the city brought together more countries than the United Nations connects, Olympic organizers struggled to convey the ideal image they hoped to present to the world. Sixteen years after the games concluded, history has, for the most part, looked back favorably on the games despite the obvious black marks affecting the two-week spectacle — often in ways not obvious to those who still call Atlanta home.

Perhaps more important, Atlanta rallied around a single cause — a rare occurrence in the city's discordant past. In 1864, General Sherman ordered the city to be burned down to ensure a faster end to the Civil War. More than 130 years later, Atlanta finally found unity through the Olympic flame, kindled by Muhammad Ali's ceremonial torch.

Immediate impact

"The reputation, the visibility of Atlanta as an international city just sprang to life," says A.D. Frazier, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) chief operating officer. "I think our image as a destination ... was fundamentally changed. It was a pivotal turning point for the city."

Frazier, a former banking, broadcasting, and political executive who oversaw the bulk of Olympic operations from 1991 to 1996, found himself in charge of the games' preparations and subsequent development. He's responsible for building Olympic Stadium, later renamed Turner Field, adjacent to the Braves' former home of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. He assisted Billy Payne, ACOG's chief executive officer and current chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, in constructing Centennial Olympic Park — the largest American urban center park created in the past quarter century. Inspired by Barcelona's Plaça d'Espanya, a city center where Olympic attendees congregated during the 1992 games, the two attempted to re-create that spirited camaraderie in their own hometown.

"The park was an 11th-hour brainstorm of Billy Payne for people to congregate," says Don Rooney, Atlanta History Center Director of Exhibitions. "A.D. Frazier just about busted a gasket when Billy Payne said, 'I see a park out here.'"

According to Frazier, Centennial Olympic Park, before then mostly vacant lots and half-empty warehouses, offered people much more than just a gathering place. With the development of the park, downtown became revitalized for local residents and business owners as well as a hub for tourism.

"I think the Olympics were a catalyst," he says. "I've likened it to putting an ink drop in a glass of water. I think when downtown came to life for the Olympics, it caused a lot of people to think about reinvesting and redoing parts of downtown."

"Downtown Atlanta was dying. There was nothing taking place," SUMMECH Executive Director Janis Ware says. "Philips Arena was also redone. Now you have the Georgia Dome there. You've got the aquarium, the Coca-Cola Museum. You have so many things to do."

Centennial Park's iconic fountain bears the five signature Olympic rings - MAX BLAU
  • Max Blau
  • Centennial Park's iconic fountain bears the five signature Olympic rings

Before 1990, Atlanta didn't have its current international recognition largely due to its inherent lack of tourist destinations. ACOG representatives often recounted a story from their early Olympic travels where people would refer to Atlanta as "the city on the East Coast with slot machines," incorrectly identifying Atlantic City.

Following the Olympics, people unquestionably remembered Atlanta as an estimated three billion people saw the city in action that summer. This massive exposure enabled Atlanta to sustain its growth as a tourist destination. Harvey Newman, a recently retired Georgia State professor and author of Southern Hospitality: Tourism and the Growth of Atlanta, observed this firsthand well after the Olympics ended that year.

"We had a hotel-building frenzy in those five, six years prior to the games," Newman says. "I thought it had to let up, we can't sustain that kind of growth, [but we] kept building and it was amazing."

"When you pump five, six billion dollars into a metropolitan area in a concentrated period of six years, you're going to have an enormous impact," he says. "In fact, that was the case. We led the nation in job creation, new jobs created, from '91 through the Olympic games."

Perhaps the most impressive part (or problematic, according to some critics) of the Olympic preparation was the fact that ACOG had no public funding to back its efforts. The committee raised and spent approximately $1.7 billion, leaving Atlanta with numerous legacy structures including Turner Field and Centennial Olympic Park without costing taxpayers a dime.

The Olympics bequeathed two of Atlanta's most treasured and iconic landmarks. That never happens, as nearly every other Olympic host uses the games as an excuse to fund major public works projects in order to present their city and nation in the best possible light. Atlanta simply didn't have that luxury.

"We spent $1.7 billion," Frazier recalls. "They're spending $17 billion in London. That's 10 times what we spent, and yet the leverage that gave to the Atlanta economy I think was incredible. I don't think London is going to get anything like that kind of return."

ACOG could spend within its means because of its remarkable use of Atlanta's pre-existing infrastructure. Unlike many other games, which have invested in public works and grandiose-but-underutilized venues, Frazier tapped into the city's established resources as the foundation for the Atlanta games.

"The assets Atlanta had were rapid transit and the ability to put venues in a compact location, generally right downtown in what we called the Olympic ring," Frazier says. Some of those sites included the Georgia Dome, Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, and the Omni Coliseum — which would be replaced by Philips Arena in 1999.

Many major universities that hosted sporting events received funding for structural improvements. Collegiate athletic facilities soon converted into world-class venues: Clark Atlanta University's Herndon Stadium hosted field hockey; Morehouse's Forbes Arena accommodated preliminary basketball rounds; and Georgia State used its athletic facilities for badminton. Georgia Tech constructed a state-of-the-art natatorium for the games' aquatic events, while a decent chunk of the campus transformed into the Olympic Village.

"We spent a lot of money at Georgia Tech," Frazier says. "We put the big dorms on the side of the interstate as you can see. We also invested money in almost every dormitory and fraternity house on the campus."

For Georgia State, the Olympics had farther-reaching effects, changing the institution from a commuter school into a residential college. "The opportunity to take over the dormitories, the Olympic Village, as our first dormitories, was a major policy shift for this institution," Newman says. "All of those changes would not have happened apart from the Olympic preparation."

Some Olympic venues struggled to find their repurposed use. Stone Mountain Tennis Park and Wolf Creek Shooting Complex have both faced uphill battles in the 16 years since the games took place. Stone Mountain Tennis Park shut down in 2007, while Wolf Creek Shooting Complex has experienced financial difficulties. Stone Mountain Park's temporary structures for archery and indoor cycling are long gone and have been replaced by a songbird habitat.

Local communty and housing

ACOG's incorporation of the metro area into the Olympics remains one of its great achievements. That incorporation also lent itself to a coincidental shift in public-housing policy on a national level, which allowed for significant progress and redevelopment to progress at a rapid pace. Techwood Homes — the United States' oldest public housing project — could finally be demolished, while the city de-emphasized low-income public housing in favor of deconcentrated, mixed-income communities.

"That had an enormous impact on Atlanta, Ga. — politically, demographically, in every way that I could think of," Newman explains. "Prior to that, we had one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country. ... The results have been an impetus for changes in housing policy in many of the city's low-income neighborhoods and also a jump-start to downtown housing."

Olympic-commissioned folk art has become a semi-permanent residence for some of Atlanta's homeless population - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Olympic-commissioned folk art has become a semi-permanent residence for some of Atlanta's homeless population

As a local community leader in the Mechanicsville and Summerhill neighborhoods, Janis Ware witnessed these same changes. She's hesitant to express enthusiasm on par with Newman's sentiments over the Olympics' effect, but she does ultimately believe that the city benefitted from these changes to housing policies and community development.

"The fact is that under the guise of progress [prior to the Olympics], Mechanicsville and Summerhill suffered dramatically," she says. "I think the Olympics really did help in a lot of ways because the picture that they wanted to present to the world was totally different from what actually existed in a lot of cases."

Not everyone, however, viewed the Olympics in a positive light on the local level. With Turner Field set to be built in proximity of communities like Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, and Summerhill, others had issues with the sprawling surface parking consuming those sites. This would lead undesired traffic to seep into residential areas, inevitably causing a spike in crime rates.

"I think there were a lot of people in the community that were not in support of another major facility being built in the neighborhood because the Fulton County Stadium was already here," Ware says. "So now you want to put another huge monstrosity in the neighborhood, so you're disrupting lives again, purchasing additional property, relocating people and determining what can take place in the redevelopment initiative of that."

ACOG received condemnation authority from the city of Atlanta, thereby giving it the right to vacate and demolish properties for public use. Despite an emphasis on community engagement during this sensitive process, Newman points out that the process didn't always happen in commendable fashion.

"We repeated some errors in terms of treatment of low-income residents in terms of moving them out abruptly," he reflects. "Atlanta has had a long history of that so it's neither the first nor the largest [displacement]."

A quick drive through these three neighborhoods offers a sense of how the communities have fared, how the Olympics altered some community dynamics. Summerhill underwent some gentrification due to the games, Frazier notes. Street of Dreams — a section of Pryor Road where approximately 15 single-family detached houses were built to "present" Mechanicsville in a better light — shows some wear and tear but still stands tall.

The downside of the Olympics

To critics of the Olympic effort, who suggested (and still say) the Atlanta Olympics led to a sterile final product, devoid of real Southern culture or influence, its privatization was a large part of the problem. In short, it means there was little interest in a post-games examination of what was done wrong. ACOG's privatization meant that the organization soon dissolved after the games. No comprehensive studies took place to assess the larger overall Olympic impact on the local, economic, or cultural levels. It was an unfortunate by-product of a truly national spectacle that had no national backing from a financial standpoint.

That doesn't make the effort any less singular in retrospect. Richard Diggelmann — Kodak's former Director of Corporate Sponsorship during the Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta summer games — remains convinced that Atlanta's privatization emerged as a rare moment in Olympic history, one that likely will never be repeated.

"I think it's impossible now for any Olympic to be done on a totally private basis," he says. "There just isn't the money. ... I don't think you're ever going to see another privatized games. It's too horrendous of an investment."

When Diggelmann refers to the scale of an Olympic investment, it's not hard to find additional shortcomings with the Atlanta games due to a lack of public funding. The first thing that often comes up is the crass commercialization surrounding the games. In Olympic marketing, the IOC sells ambush-free rights (ambush marketing occurs when someone tries to associate its product with yours without authorization) to companies, giving them exclusive Olympic licenses while prohibiting competitors from doing so. Despite these contracts, the city of Atlanta tried to bend the rules in its favor.

"Munson Steed's name comes to mind." Diggelmann says. "I guess the most famous and notorious of the efforts in ambush marketing that happened here in Atlanta were these stalls that were being sold to people, whereby there was really no ambush protection."

Eric Rudolph's pipe bomb left a permanent nail mark embedded in a statue at the northeast end of Centennial Olympic Park - MAX BLAU
  • Max Blau
  • Eric Rudolph's pipe bomb left a permanent nail mark embedded in a statue at the northeast end of Centennial Olympic Park

Steed, an entrepreneur with close ties to then-Mayor Bill Campbell's office, sold vendors stalls outside various Olympics venues, most notably along the sidewalks that decorated Hank Aaron Drive. In setting up these city-sanctioned, revenue-generating programs, he exploited major Olympic sponsors, threatening to work with their competitors if they didn't participate in his programs — a clear violation of the ambush-free sponsorship contracts these corporations held.

"We ended up, in some cases, looking like a third-world city because these people sell gear on the side of the street," Frazier says. "The people who were selling goods were supposed to sell them off the sidewalk, but they didn't. They moved on the sidewalk, so people moved from the sidewalks into the streets and the buses had a hard time getting around."

It wasn't just small-scale vendors or city-backed efforts that tarnished Atlanta's image. Larger companies not only slapped the five Olympic rings on apparel and souvenirs, but they also merchandised commodities including motor oil (Havoline) and soap bars (Dial). Detractors likened the Olympic cauldron to a carton of McDonald's french fries, while the Varsity created its own Olympic pin, swapping out the signature logo for onion rings.

"One of the most famous pins is the five rings — five onion rings — from the Varsity," Atlanta History Center curator Don Rooney shares as he shows me thousands of pieces of memorabilia from the museum's archives. "The Varsity had its onion rings coming out of the rings, it so happened that the IOC didn't like that very much. They had a cease and desist."

"It turned out to be quite a black mark and was one of the reasons that Samaranch wasn't as effusive as he usually is about his praising of the games," Diggelmann states. "It was a black mark not on the athletic part of the games, but it was certainly was on the marketing side and the visual impact."

All of these issues, however, paled in comparison to the indelible mark left by Eric Rudolph's Olympic Park bombing, which killed two people, injured 111 spectators, and cast a shadow over the triumphant mood that typically surrounds the Olympic games.

"We had a bomb," Frazier says. "We had an American put a bomb — this was a serious bomb — in a public place and killed [two people] and injured others. That's a bad thing. I felt the bomb. I went outside and it was pretty bad. I was on the balcony and looked over to the park — people who were injured and it was just tough."

While Olympic organizers, volunteers, athletes, and attendees resoundingly carried on in the face of tragedy, the disaster weighed heavily in the minds of IOC organizers. Samaranch, known for his traditional praising of every city as the "best Olympic games ever," only referred to the Atlanta events as "most exceptional." That seems like a notable recognition, but those familiar with the Olympics understand the remark's gravity.

"We resented that deeply," Frazier adamantly states. "I know Billy did and I did, too. We put on the biggest games ever held. We sold 8.6 million tickets, which is more people than saw the Los Angeles games and Barcelona games combined. More people saw women's sports in the Atlanta games than the entire games in Barcelona as ticket holders."

The Atlanta Olympics had its fair share of issues, but it was also successful in many ways. In fact, much of the Olympic effect has blossomed throughout the metro area over the past 16 years. Atlanta shattered precedents for female and Paralympic athletic participation.

"Atlanta Olympic and Paralympic linked together in a new way so future bid cities learned something from Atlanta's effort," Rooney says. "The green function and energy efficiency was something that came about at the time Atlanta was bidding for the games. ... Atlanta was the first games to have e-commerce in a significant way."

Atlanta experienced perhaps the most prosperous period in its storied history following the Olympics. Population surged from 3.5 million metro-area inhabitants in 1996 to 5.5 million residents in 2011. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has continued its reign as the world's busiest airports since 1998. As of 2010, 12 Fortune 500 companies call Atlanta their home. Only three other metropolitan areas in the United States — New York, Houston, and Dallas — top that figure.

Fifteen additional companies with headquarters based out of Atlanta made the Fortune 1000 that same year, while countless corporations have established regional headquarters in the surrounding area. While this sustained increase in economic growth can't be entirely attributed to the Olympics, it's not a far stretch to say that the two are interconnected.

"Our legacy with corporations — Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and others — are now joined by regional offices of international companies," Frazier surmises. "I think the economic development of this city was fundamentally boosted by the Olympic games."

Centennial Tower, built near the Varsity by developer Taz Anderson, is a 12-story symbol of Atlanta's Olympic legacy - MAX BLAU
  • Max Blau
  • Centennial Tower, built near the Varsity by developer Taz Anderson, is a 12-story symbol of Atlanta's Olympic legacy

Atlanta's Olympic legacy

The '96 Olympics permanently changed the heart of Atlanta for the better — not just with the larger revitalization surrounding Centennial Olympic Park, but the finer, often-overlooked points, too. Atlanta allotted a budget for public artwork and dedicated focus on the city's beautification. Atlanta not only considered sidewalks, benches, streetlights, and banners from a utilitarian viewpoint, but also with aesthetic considerations.

"[The Olympics] gave the city a jump-start on public art," Newman claims. "This is a city that has not had memorable expensive investments in public art. We had a budget in preparation for the games, we did some things that I thought were really good and did some things looking back, what were we thinking?"

The worthy endeavors — like the "whimsical" folk art on Piedmont Avenue and Courtland Street over the 75/85 Connector — sparked the city's newfound interest in arts patronage. The more questionable efforts, including the $75,000 globe paved into Andrew Young International Boulevard and Peachtree Street's intersection or the dissociated "Birth of Atlanta" that hovers over Underground Atlanta, still showed an effort toward raising the city's cultural profile for the better.

These projects haven't been pristinely maintained, but that's a problem nearly all Olympic cities face. More important that the specific upkeep of these commissions is the message it sends. When a city demonstrates its willingness to support the arts, it inherently attracts artists. Along with the city's economic and population booms over the past 16 years, it's arguable that the Olympic legacy allowed Atlanta to claim having the most arts-related business per capita in the entire United States.

As the London Olympics kick off and Atlanta looks back at the legacy established 16 years ago, it remains difficult to objectively assess the true impact of the international, two-week athletic competition. Perhaps Richard Diggelmann summarizes it best: "I suppose the games maybe did a little more for Atlanta than Atlanta did for the games," he says. "When you go into the history books, the Olympics will hold a very important part in Atlanta history. I'm not sure it's the other way around."

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