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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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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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