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