Atlanta’s Olympic legacy: It’s there, even if not always obvious

OK, so it wasn't all so great. We still haven't gotten over Izzy. (AJC photo by Joey Ivansco)

OK, so not everything about our Olympics was splendiferous. In 16 years, we still haven't gotten over Izzy. (AJC photo by Joey Ivansco)

Sixteen summers ago, we were London. The eyes of the world — and not just that segment of the population that cares about sports — were on Atlanta. Some critics found us wanting. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the head of the International Olympic Committee, denied the Atlanta Games his customary “best ever” benediction. No matter.

We had the Olympics. Big things happened. Michael Johnson ran really fast. Kerri Strug made her valorous vault. The U.S. men and women won in basketball, and the U.S. women won in soccer. And there was, sad to say, a bomb explosion in Centennial Olympic Park that killed a woman named Alice Hawthorne.

We, meaning all of us Atlantans, have an Olympic legacy. But there are times when you have to look hard to see it. “Usually the icon for the Olympics is the Olympic Stadium,” said Bob Hope, an Atlanta public relations executive. “When you look at ours, you see the Braves’ stadium.”

Our Olympic Stadium, the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field, began to become Turner Field almost as soon as the Olympic flame was doused. Speaking of which: The caldron that housed the flame, memorably lit by Muhammad Ali, now stands in a parking lot a block up Hank Aaron Drive.

“It just sits there,” said Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor who was chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, speaking to the AJC’s Jill Vejnoska last year. “I pass right by it and don’t see it.”

Other than Centennial Olympic Park, which has become a focal point of downtown, there aren’t many visible points of reference to those 17 days in 1996. This was not some oversight. This was, on the contrary, by design.

Said A.D. Frazier, who was the chief operating officer for ACOG: “We didn’t build anything that didn’t have an after-use … The organizing committee had to use its own money, and we raised every penny of the $1.7 billion. We couldn’t afford to build monuments that weren’t going to be used for anything.”

Also this: “We were on a budget. We sweated over every nickel.”

And that’s the other part of our Olympic memory: The continuing wonder that those Games graced our burg at all. Before the Olympics, Atlanta was known mostly for Coca-Cola, Ted Turner’s cable network and our airport. Said Frazier: “If you look at the cities that have hosted the Summer Games — Rome, London, Mexico City — those are world-class cities. Having the Olympics puts you in a different class.”

More Frazier: “We’re certainly proud to have hosted the Olympics. It had a powerful impact on the way Atlanta people see themselves. For two weeks we were the center of attention in the whole world … Our Olympic legacy is that it set us up for some really good things to happen in the civic center.”

And maybe that’s it. Maybe we in Atlanta reacted to the Olympics the way we react to most things. “We move on,” Hope said. “That’s the nature of our town. Traditionally we haven’t honored great architecture or great buildings. We don’t have a great sense of heritage.”

Even if little about Turner Field recalls its Olympics usage — the same applies to the Georgia Dome, where gymnastics and basketball were staged on separate sides of a curtain — what would have been the alternative? Said Taz Anderson, an Atlanta entrepreneur: “I don’t know what you do with an Olympic stadium other than look at it … It was pretty clever to turn ours into a ballpark.”

Frazier: “I think all the cities in America would be happy not to have had to pay a penny for their baseball stadium.”

The 1996 Games were characterized in the world press as utilitarian at the center and crassly commercial on the periphery — Frazier: “Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn what the Times of London says” — but nobody can say they left Atlanta in the financial lurch. If some folks were disappointed they didn’t make as much money as they’d hoped, no taxpayer can say he still feels the burden from those 17 days of 16 years ago.

Contrast this with Montreal, which was in debt for three decades after its 1976 Summer Games. Or with the 2000 Sydney Games, which needed a late infusion of government money for its show to go on. Or with London, which is, according to Forbes, spending between $15 to $20 billion (the bulk from public money) on its Games.

In the main, the Atlanta Games were a success — for Atlanta. Maybe not for the Times of London or the sawed-off Samaranch, but for those of us who remained after those 17 days. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a wonderful experience going to those Olympics,” Hope said, and the 16 intervening years haven’t been all bad, either.

Said Anderson: “Centennial Park is the most concrete part [of our legacy], with the kids playing in the rings. [The Park] cleaned up a whole side of town. That’s been very positive … Centennial Park was for Atlanta the remaining icon, and that’s pretty good.”

Frazier: “The legacy I see is that a lot of people who live around here came downtown Atlanta and saw a lot of potential. The Midtown expansion, the Georgia Tech expansion — I can’t give the Olympics credit for all of that, but I think of the Olympics as the ink track in the water.”

Now, if we could just find a better place for that caldron …

By Mark Bradley

143 comments Add your comment

Flacons never learn

August 10th, 2012
11:36 am

Mark Bradley

August 10th, 2012
11:37 am

Flacons never learn

August 10th, 2012
11:39 am

I ment first!

jose

August 10th, 2012
11:40 am

If they are only spending $15-20 MILLION, they are gettng the deal of a lifetime but I think you really meant to say “BILLION”.

Nick Purdy

August 10th, 2012
11:41 am

billion not million Mark

jose

August 10th, 2012
11:41 am

TechDan

August 10th, 2012
11:43 am

I’ve always wondered why the cauldron never made it over to Centennial. I suppose it’s too large and would visually dominate the park, but with the expansion of Pemberton Place, the continuous park is huge and could probably host the Cauldron these days. It would certainly be better than standing over a random intersection a couple blocks from the stadium.

Scotty

August 10th, 2012
11:46 am

I think part of the effort went toward a big time fiber optic network that remains in place today. Hey, I’m using it now!

Sean

August 10th, 2012
11:54 am

I might be in the minority, but I actually like where the cauldron is located. You can see it from the highway (which wouldn’t be the case if it were moved to Centennial Park), and I like that it hasn’t gone far from where it sat during the Olympics.

Mark Bradley

August 10th, 2012
11:54 am

I did mean billion. Thanks.

Mark Bradley

August 10th, 2012
11:55 am

Kdos, Flacons.

Tana

August 10th, 2012
11:55 am

I think the way that Atlanta was able to utilize already structured localesand by transforming other ones made the city not idiots who left a giant billion dollar bird’s nest (which was ugly) empty.

Atlanta did the Olympics in way that benefited the city itself for the next decades to come. People get caught up ion the Olympics “lasting a lifetime”. No chances are you only will eveer host them for 17 days. It’s great to have sights like Centennial Olympic Park where you can go and remember those 1996 Games.

On the other hand….I have lived in Atlanta and I very much see the Olympics. When I go to a Braves game with rookies, I love explaining to them how our stadium was built to be transformed into a baseball field.

I’m from Covington, Georgia and the Horse Park in Conyers has been a great addition to the Conyers area and the excitement of our little square when the Olympic torch ran by was unbelievable.

I totally agree that this city ran an Olympic Games that will forever be remembered by our city. It is our legacy to rise from the ashes, and not to say our games burned our global perception….but if you think of it that way then we did exactly what we are best at.

Adapting.

Guy Bailey

August 10th, 2012
11:55 am

Maybe its different for me being an incomer and a Brit but I do scratch my head at the lack of an Olympic Legacy for the ATL – one half of a baseball stadium, that drunks climbing frame next to the connector and a couple of fountains in downtown – not much to show IMO, and I love Atlanta.

Benjamin

August 10th, 2012
11:55 am

My run of firsts has been broken. Hold the mantle well, Flacons never learn. Hold the mantle well.

Further, I like our leaders’ view of the ‘96 Games. Very practical view from a group of people not always known for being, well, practical.

captaindave

August 10th, 2012
11:57 am

Mark:

Great viewpoints in your column.

To emphasize your points, do some research on the status of the last two summer Olympic stadiums. My understanding is that the Athens stadium is abandoned and in a state of complete disrepair. The Beijing stadium is not abandoned but neither is it used for anything except a tiny handful of events each year.

The contrast of these cities better highlights the points you communicated in your column.

TC

August 10th, 2012
11:58 am

Before the Olympics we claimed to be an international city but we knew we weren’t really. After the Olympics we are an international city and we wish we could go back!

Hillbilly D

August 10th, 2012
11:59 am

Maybe its different for me being an incomer and a Brit but I do scratch my head at the lack of an Olympic Legacy for the ATL –

It’s the traditional Atlanta way, tear it down, pave it over, forget about it.

Guy Bailey

August 10th, 2012
12:01 pm

Hillbilly – so I understand. As my ATL wife would say: “Forget it Guy, It’s Cabbagetown…”

done

August 10th, 2012
12:03 pm

Now, if we could just find a better place for that caldron

how about the garbage dump…it’s just plain ugly.

DeepDiver

August 10th, 2012
12:05 pm

I think that Izzy may have a slight edge over the current set of mascots.

Also, as a London resident, I can say that the NHS sucks and should not be celebrated in front of the rest of the world (although the ideology of equal access to health care is noble). The best and brightest in UK medicine go elsewhere to ply their craft.

TC

August 10th, 2012
12:07 pm

Their celebration of the health system makes our stainless steel Chevy pickups at the opening ceremonies look cool!

Guy Bailey

August 10th, 2012
12:09 pm

Deepdiver – NHS, yer jokin arn yer? – although this column is not the time and place to discuss the NHS and the BBC are the two institutions that we’ll go to the matresses for – British, public, effective, loved and they work.

The Anti-Gnostic

August 10th, 2012
12:23 pm

Good column Mark.

To me, the fundamental problem is that the Olympics have gotten so big, requiring massive public outlays. Viewed in this light, the AOC can be rightfully proud that they didn’t leave citizens with billions in debt. (Not that there weren’t plenty of other externalities).

Atlanta is not a “world-class” town, even though a lot of the world comes here. The city is less than 200 years old. Not every place gets to be Paris or Rome, and it took them many centuries to attain that status. Thirty five years after its founding, much of Atlanta was burned down. It was never more than a provincial capital in a provincial region, and probably will always have that character. I say this as a proud native.

The Games have too many events–most having nothing to do with the martial character of classical athletics–and too much government involvement. They should be small, strictly amateur, and privately funded.

DeepDiver

August 10th, 2012
12:27 pm

The NHS is understaffed, underfunded and encumbered by unwieldy bureaucracy. My wife recently gave birth at Chelsea & Westminster hospital and we were appalled at the quality of the services offered throughout the whole process, especially on the day.

You are correct — not the time or place — so I won’t get into specifics. Suffice to say it felt like we were in a developing country, instead of a leading international city. Now there are plans to close off two hospitals in nearby Hammersmith, putting further strain on C&W.

BBC is great and puts NBC to shame in terms of Olympics coverage.

Jtb

August 10th, 2012
12:28 pm

You could add the vast improvements made by Georgia State as something made possible thanks to the Olympics.

Grantland Rice

August 10th, 2012
12:32 pm

Great write up Mark and a lot of great memories for me. The men’s 100 meter finals is still the greatest sporting event I’ve ever attended. 3 false starts, the tension in the stadium was palpable, you could have heard a pin drop in the stadium just before the starter’s gun. And then a world record from Bailey, the stadium erupted. He was in 3rd place at 60 meters, then hit the turbo! So glad I was able to attend some truly incredible performances.

jwc

August 10th, 2012
12:38 pm

I got in my car and drove (no bike trail, no sidewalk) from Peachtree City, turned left on Peachtree then another right on Peachtree to Peachtree corners. I parked on Peachtree and took a bus to Peachtree station, catching Marta after a scary thirty minute underground wait. At the end of the ride I got out at Peachtree and had to take a bus to the ball field where I think I saw remnants of the 1996 Olympics. I was so very proud at our foresight and creativity.

TC

August 10th, 2012
12:42 pm

My most distinct memory is of being on the street around Ga Tech when some runners came by on a training run. They were going so fast and yet seemed to glide (ala Hank Aaron running down a line drive) and they were hardly breathing. World class athletes are different from you and me.

George V

August 10th, 2012
12:44 pm

The Olympic caldron is being maintained, recently repainted it looks like it did 16 years ago (BTW – it looks great!). The land it stands on is part of a TAD that seems to have stalled. We need some good ideas to revive the TAD and convert the parking lot back drop into something more adorning of the Centenntial Olympic Caldron. Olympic Caldron Park has a nice ring to it. Ok naysayers, flame on! Get it, I said flame ;)

Grantland Rice

August 10th, 2012
12:51 pm

TC, great post. I attended my first water polo match (US/Croatia). A really close, hard fought contest up and down the pool. After the match & a brief huddle, the US team was back in the pool swimming laps. Amazing.

Rambo

August 10th, 2012
12:52 pm

What happened to the beautiful world class warmup track on the old Cheney site?
What happened to the beautiful stadium on the Morris Brown campus? The stadiums at Morehouse and Clark are well maintained and well used. What happened to the beautiful first class shooting venue?…I believe it is now a flop as a concert venue.

T-Bone

August 10th, 2012
1:07 pm

Great article, Mark. I couldn’t agree more. I was there in 1996 and had a great time. And I agree with Frazier. I don’t give a damn what the rest of the world thinks. We hosted an Olympics, everybody had a great time, there were some phenomenal memories, and we came out in the black. That ain’t bad.

But I am tired of the rest of the world looking down their self-righteous noses at us–the snub by London in their opening ceremonies was uncalled for. And I do wish Atlanta would use these great facilities to host some pre-Olympic type events (qualifying meets, etc.). The Aquatics Center at Tech could certianly do that.

And let’s find a better place for the caldron.

GT Alum

August 10th, 2012
1:09 pm

There’s plenty of remnants of the Olympics. Things weren’t just torn down and paved over. Maybe there’s not Olympic logos and names on things, but there’s plenty of things to remember the Olympics from. The Olympic Village dorms haven’t sunk into the ground and have been used as dorms first by GSU, then by Tech (which badly needed them).

And I don’t see why people complain about changing the old Olympic stadium into Turner Field. Would people rather we have done like Montreal and used the Olympic stadium as a baseball field in its original configuration? I never went there, but based on how much I remember hearing people complain about it, it was in the running for one of the worst parks in baseball.

The fact of the matter is you aren’t likely to need all these venues after the Games, so you either re-purpose them and use them, or you spend huge amounts of public money not only to construct them but to maintain them as expensive monuments or you let them fall into disrepair and have them serve as dilapidated monuments. Personally, I think the first option is the best, and I’m glad it’s the one Atlanta used. Maybe it didn’t always succeed, but that’s probably at least as much a fault of the hands they were left in as a result of poor planning by the Olympic committee.

lordporkchop

August 10th, 2012
1:11 pm

There are of course hits and misses as far as our Olympic legacy is concerned. I remember the intention being to let many venues disappear afterwards. Stone Mountain Park now has a trail and bird habitat where the cycling cleodrome stood. I used to use it often when I lived on that side of town. The Olympic village became dorms for Ga State and now Tech (I think). The remain a visible sign of those games along the connector in downtown (and still look pretty pleasant compared to what was there before). Centennial Park is helping to bring some positive development back to the downtown area. Of course there are misses- the tennis at Stone Mountain Park off Park Place and Hwy 78 is crumbling. But for the most part, the games did do a lot of positive things for the city without being a financial burden for the citizens. And it was an awesome time. Solid post today.

lordporkchop

August 10th, 2012
1:14 pm

GT Alum- As a UGA alum, I’m dismayed that we seem to agree on so much. I’m sure that won’t be the case in November. Way to steal my thunder. And of course, Go Dawgs.

sidslid

August 10th, 2012
1:21 pm

Sore spot for me are attendance and logisticis. The Dome was packed for prelim gymnastics. 40,000 people per game at EXHIBITION baseball. All the smaller sports at the World Congress Center filled with people. I think we had 11,000,000. Look at all the empty seats in every Olympics after ours.

On the logistics side, a good friend of mine had attended many Olympics. He said a big problem was getting people to the venues and the events and awards ceremonies running late. Every track meet I ever attended lagged behind because once one event is late, it cascades. My friend remarked the events and ceremonies went off like clockwork and transportation was far superior to any others he had attended.

We will never get the credit thanks to Juan the Don and the media not getting enough roast beef sandwiches on the bus, but I can’t see a future Olympics touching our attendance or fiscal responsibility.

sidslid

August 10th, 2012
1:24 pm

One other thing. London’s opening ceremonies s##ked. I thought for sure they would get the distinguished Roger Bannister to light the flame. Still can’t figure out what was going on there. And then the bow to socialized medicine where American life expectancy is years greater than the Brits.

Atlanta is Corrupt

August 10th, 2012
1:41 pm

Bill the Crook Campbell, the convicted felon, did all he could to trash the 96 games, from the push carts (many never sold, still in storage) to extortion of vendors, imho. Never, ever trust an Atlanta politician!

Yellowja

August 10th, 2012
1:43 pm

It is funny because I was just thinking about the caldron this morning. I always wondered why Atlanta didn’t consider moving it to Centential Olympic park and make it a bigger part of the park. I would imagine that it could be moved cheaply over there and make it a lasting symbol with greater visibility.

Najeh Davenpoop

August 10th, 2012
1:47 pm

Not having massive post-Olympic debt is a legacy to be proud of in and of itself. I wish they had taken the opportunity fifteen years ago to expand MARTA, though, since it’s never going to happen now.

dre

August 10th, 2012
1:50 pm

Atlanta is Corrupt, you stole my thunder. Our Olympic legacy, Bill Campbell, is in jail somewhere.

TC

August 10th, 2012
1:51 pm

Actually sidslid, according to a National Geographic chart I’m looking at our life expectancy is 78 years and the UK is 79.2. But we should catch up since we spend $7290 per capita and they spend $2992.

Old Boy

August 10th, 2012
1:58 pm

Don’t forget that the previous Olympics had been held in Barcelona, Samaranch’s home. Probably had a big influence on his slight.

Realtycheck

August 10th, 2012
2:17 pm

The carpetbaggers and scalawags who rebuilt Atlanta from the ashes continue to this day. IOC was just sore they got out hustled.

Heisenberg

August 10th, 2012
2:34 pm

Druid Hills

August 10th, 2012
2:39 pm

…… and the Atlanta Braves won the World Series the year before in 1995,
without Turner Field.

Andy

August 10th, 2012
2:41 pm

Frankly, I don’t see how (or why) a city would do it any other way than what Atlanta did. I’m all for preserving the memories and legacy of the games to the extent practicable, but to leave these million (now billion) dollar venues to sit there as museums is insane and a waste of money. Maybe China can afford that, but I doubt other countries/cities can. Atlanta should be used as a model for other cities wanting to host the games without paying for it for the next 30 years, like Montreal. London is already such an expensive city–I imagine it will be even more so after these games.

JSS

August 10th, 2012
3:00 pm

No, no, no!!! They could have run a debt-free games and left a “real” sports legacy with some true foundations of structures that could have built a true foundation of non-traditional sports. It is their great failure… They lied about what the athletics stadium (track and field) was going to be in the end… We are still paying three debts (Phillips, post games yes but it should have been part of the Olympic build and saved a ton of costs), the failure to expand MARTA is like a burning tire around all of our necks, and lastly almost all of the venues have passed into a state of non-athletic uses… We should have gained far more… There is not one Track and field facility in this country off of a college campus worthy of world-class meet excluding the Home Depot complex in the LA area… That is just sad for an area that stocks the men and women track and field teams to be so woeful!

Puck Like A Porn Star

August 10th, 2012
3:10 pm

Best Bradley article EVER.

But if the Cauldron gets moved to Centennial Olympic Park, it was my idea first. It should be moved to the entrance on Baker across from Pemberton Place and lit up on the Fourth of July and Atlanta’s founding day(s) just to tick off the IOC. Who’s in charge of the Cauldron and all the ACOG trademarks anyway? They should sell Atlanta 1996 souvenirs even now!

JSS

August 10th, 2012
3:13 pm

Nobody is going to use the “Atlanta model” for financing the games… Toronto has run fast and hard from it… Chicago tried a model of it and did not make it out of the first round of voting… The next three games will go to places who have deep pockets (Brazil ethanol money, Indonesia 2020 front runner Oil, and 2024 maybe Paris or Moscow)… The Atlanta model is a myth…