The Olympic Legacy
Billy Payne didn’t conjure up the 1996 Olympics concept. The idea found him, "like a bolt of lightning from the sky," Payne says almost 20 years after it first occurred to him that Atlanta would — not should, but most definitely would — host the largest sporting spectacle the world had ever seen.
There was no burning bush, no chorus of angels. "I’ve never been presumptuous enough to call it a vision," says Payne, who was looking out over a smiling congregation at the dedication of a church sanctuary on Feb. 8, 1987 when it hit him — the idea that there was something else he could do to bring people together in the spirit of celebration.
He’d just led the effort to raise $2.5 million for the church, and Payne wanted to experience that sense of well-being again. The next morning in his real estate law office he wrote down the things worth pursuing and the word that kept jumping out at him, like a second bolt of inspirational lightning, was "Olympics."
"It was pure luck and coincidence that the USOC [United States Olympic Committee] was at that moment thinking about putting up another candidate city," says Payne. "The timing was just right, but I was totally unaware of the process, I had no idea whatsoever."
Nor did Payne, now chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, have any idea of what it would ultimately take to pull it all off: $7.5 million on the bid campaign alone (most of it from local corporations); $1.7 billion in private funding for the Games themselves ("inside the fence," as Payne and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, ACOG, referred to it); millions more in state and federal government assistance in the form of housing, infrastructure improvements, security, etc. ("outside the fence" stuff in the ACOG lexicon); 100,000 people — staff and volunteers; wining, dining, convincing, conniving, enticing, selling, bartering and more melodrama than a soap opera marathon.
That barely begins to cover it. The "what-it-took-to-get-it-done" list requires a book, and Dick Yarbrough, ACOG’s managing director of communications, has already written one. And They Call Them Games (published in 2000) is a blow-by-blow account of the 1996 Games from an unsentimental insider’s point of view. "There is an old saying that two things you never want to see being made are law and sausage," Yarbrough writes. "To that I would add a third: Olympic planning. It’s not very pretty.
"What kept us focused in this sausage-making environment was what and why and who we were doing this for," Yarbrough says today. "We were providing a place for athletes to compete and for spectators to watch them. Anything else was periphery.
"We were not trying to raise the profile of the city, or make money for city government and businesses or the people who rented their homes out," Yarbrough insists. "Our focus was the 10,000 Olympic athletes, and Billy understood that better than anyone else. Our job was to put on the Games, not leave a legacy."
The Centennial Games seemed destined for Athens, Greece, where the modern Olympic movement started in 1896. When Atlanta was announced as the surprise choice of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1990 the work of building the Games began — six years of road improvements, new construction and renovations to spruce up Atlanta and Georgia for 17 days of sports and mayhem.
When the summer of 1996 finally arrived, the Games were as wonderful and frightening as one would expect from the biggest event in the city’s history. There was the deadly Centennial Olympic Park bombing, traffic snarls, complaints of over-commercialization and plenty of bad press.
But public response was generally favorable as the athletes set 32 world records and 111 Olympic records at venues in Atlanta, Columbus, Conyers, Gainesville, Jonesboro, Savannah and the Ocoee River in Tennessee, to the delight of a global TV audience and 5 million ardent spectators. The day after Eric Rudolph’s bomb killed one person, caused the heart-attack death of another and injured more than 100, Olympic venues were filled with capacity crowds.
"I think the people came out of defiance," Yarbrough says. "My own kids said that if there was any day they were going to the Games, it was that day."
Olympic organizers built approximately $600 million in venues and facilities that remain as part of an overall Olympic legacy that is tangible and subtle, both direct and indirect.
Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, is the most visible sports venue left from the 1996 Games. The former Olympic Stadium was designed with its post Games baseball life in mind. The largest venue, the sprawling, 1,400-acre Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, where Olympic equestrian, mountain biking and pentathlon events were contested, plays host to equestrian events, as well as car shows, concerts, festivals and national boomerang championships, among other things.
Other venues from the Games still showing a strong pulse include the massive Clayton County International Park (site of Olympic beach volleyball competition), stadiums and facilities at Atlanta University Center schools, the swimming/diving center at Georgia Tech (which received a $45 million upgrade and a new identity as the campus recreation center), and the tennis complex at Stone Mountain Park (now an entertainment venue).
In Gainesville, the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club (LCKC) continues to host Olympic-type events — the Canoe/Kayak World Championships in 2003, the U.S. Championships this year. But the venue’s most enduring legacies, says executive director Connie Hagler, are the children who compete there. Some have become national champions, vying for Olympic spots of their own.
"One is in medical school, another is in veterinarian school, another joined the Peace Corps," says Hagler, whose children Katie and Ty have competed on the international level and were part of the original group of kids who were boat holders for the 1996 athletes. "The Olympic experience was the beginning of an international education for these kids. It opened up the world."
The $194 million Olympic Village in downtown Atlanta, home to thousands of international athletes and coaches during the Games, is now student housing for Georgia Tech (2,700 beds) and Georgia State (2,000 beds) — it was the first student housing of any kind for Georgia State, which had been a predominantly commuter school.
GSU president Carl Patton says it’s a myth that his school, or Tech for that matter, received the housing as a gift. In GSU’s case, the Board of Regents issued $85 million in debt for the purchase. Student rent services the debt.
"We were going to get into the housing business sooner or later, the Olympics just hastened it," Patton says. "There’s a romantic notion that Olympics revitalized downtown. I think it contributed, but I don’t think it was the primary factor.
"People talk about the tremendous impact the Olympics had, but Georgia State pumps $7 million a day into the economy. Georgia Tech likewise, and the Atlanta University Center has a tremendous impact. This happens day after day. The Olympics came and went."
No one has pinpointed a precise economic impact of the Games. Jeff Humphreys of the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth estimated prior to the games an impact of $5.1 billion, but there hasn’t been a definitive follow-up study. Just the same, $5.1 billion gets swallowed whole in Georgia’s $300 billion annual economy.
While some, including the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, claim the Games provided the predicted $5 billion wallop, critics like Georgia Tech professor Larry Keating have argued that they cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, most of it on transportation projects.
Humphreys doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. "The Olympics accelerated public investment, improvements that were going to be made anyway, improvements to the airport, interstates, sidewalks. All of those were on the planning horizon before we knew the Olympics were coming.
"That investment continues to make a difference in the state," Humphreys says. "Additionally, there was parallel acceleration in private investment, some of it directly related to the Olympics, some of it indirect. I think the Olympics, especially that park, transformed Atlanta in a way nothing else has."
A Remodeled City
As chief operating officer of ACOG it was A.D. Frazier’s job to turn CEO Payne’s vision into reality. One dark morning in 1993 Frazier found the boss on the deck outside ACOG’s offices at the Inforum, staring into the abyss below, a dilapidated warehouse district. "As he was looking over this squalid, run-down, probably drug and rat infested area he tells me, ‘We’re gonna build a park here,’" Frazier recalls. "I told him, ‘You’re out of your mind. We can’t afford to put the Olympics on É and you want to build a park? Down there, in that?’
"Against all odds the park got built, and it’s become the eye-popping legacy of the Games. The Georgia Aquarium, the New World of Coke, the housing projects, everything happening in that area has flowered from Olympic seeds."
A 360-degree turn in Centennial Olympic Park as a vantage point offers a panoramic view of the residential, hotel, office and retail crop that has grown around the 21-acre public facility. According to city of Atlanta statistics, about $1.5 billion in development has happened or is happening around the park.
"That park, more than anything else, represents the physical legacy of the Olympics," says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress (CAP). "Billy Payne had a great vision and I think we’ll be benefiting from it for many years."
Robinson has also said — in this magazine — that the aquarium has replaced the Olympics as Atlanta’s high point. Now he adds, "The Olympics gave us two weeks of celebration and left us with this incredible park. But it took a few years after the Games to get things revved up. Coke was gracious to give Bernie Marcus the land to build the aquarium, and now we have yet another reason to come to downtown. And what’s happening now is permanent."
No one understands the concept of permanence better than Margie Smith and Dovie Newell, residents of Centennial Place, the mixed-income development that replaced crime-ridden and often dangerous Techwood-Clark Howell Homes. The women, longtime friends, lived in Techwood, the nation’s oldest public housing development, since the 1970s.
"It’s a much better place today," says Newell, a retired nurse who worked during the Games as a hired driver and raised five children in Techwood Homes. "They talked about remodeling the old place but there wasn’t much to remodel, so they tore it down and built what we now have. It’s the best thing that could have happened. Everybody needs a decent place to live."
While Smith agrees with that assessment, she reflects the thoughts of critics who argue that many people lost their homes, never to resurface, when low-income housing was erased to make way for the new development.
"The condition of the housing is better now, but it seemed more like a community in the old neighborhood," Smith says. "You knew everybody, people talked to one another, looked after each other. If Mrs. Jones down the street was sick, someone took care of her. But when Mrs. Jones moved across town while they built Centennial Place, you just lost touch and the next thing you hear, Mrs. Jones had died. We lost a lot of friends who didn’t or couldn’t come back.
"Public housing had this bad stigma. What I wish everyone would understand is, we lived in public housing, public housing did not live in us. And now many of us are gone. I feel like we got something nice, but we lost a lot more."
No organization in Georgia has more effectively used the public-private partnership craze that was accelerated during the pre-Olympics buildup than the Atlanta Housing Authority. Under Renee Glover’s guidance, the AHA has bulldozed subsidized slums and built mixed-income communities, becoming the first public housing authority to completely privatize management of its properties. The AHA calls it, not coincidentally, the Olympic Legacy Program, which includes the $150 million Centennial Place, which opened in time for the 1996 Games.
The neighborhood is now home to a YMCA and a high-performance elementary school. Doctors paying market rates live in the same neighborhood with public-housing residents. It’s Atlanta’s great urban housing experiment and it’s become something of a national model. "We’ve generated about $3 billion in economic impact," Glover says. "When we think of the Olympic legacy, we think about how much inner city real estate has been affected. If Techwood was still there, we wouldn’t see the resurgence of that corridor."
There was a joke among newcomers to Atlanta during the pre-Olympic buildup: Georgia’s state symbol, they said, was the orange barrel. Those ubiquitous traffic barriers were everywhere as the region fast-tracked construction in preparation for the international party. Venues, roads, the airport. Everything seemed to be a worksite, and every worksite seemed to be dominated by a Hispanic workforce.
"The Olympics were a key component in the growth of our immigrant population, and I attribute that to the pre- and post-Olympics construction," says Rene Diaz, CEO of Atlanta-based distributor Diaz Foods. "Obviously there were other variables that influenced growth, like the recession in Houston in the 1980s. But the construction brought an enormous number of workers, many of whom brought their families."
Georgia ‘s Hispanic population climbed 300 percent during the 1990s. In 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 109,000 Hispanics in the state. Today’s estimates in Atlanta alone exceed 500,000. Hispanic buying power in Georgia was about $1 billion in 1990. Today it is approaching $11 billion. In 1996 Georgia’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce had 175 members. Today it has about 1,100, ranging from multimillion-dollar companies to small operations.
" Atlanta would not have been ready for the Olympics if not for the work of the immigrant population," says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "These people did a lot of the construction and worked the service jobs that needed to be filled in order for Atlanta to host the world. That helped put the city on a global map, and showed the world that we truly are an international city."
The world came to Atlanta and much of it stayed. According to the Metro Atlanta Chamber, before the Games, Atlanta had 38 foreign consulates and 27 foreign chambers of commerce. The numbers have increased to 50 and 31, respectively, and there are 500 more international businesses.
International traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport has skyrocketed since 1996: 8,000 daily international passengers then, 23,000 today; 60 international departures then, 150 today. Atlanta had been making the "international city" claim for years. The Games made it something like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ten summers later, the memory of the 1996 Games and the champions are fading into trivia, but you can jog your memory at the Centennial Olympic Games Museum, which opened in July at the Atlanta History Center.
Since the Olympic flame went out, the Games’ organizers have moved in different directions. Payne was named to his post as chairman of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament in May. Yarbrough is a syndicated columnist. (His work appears several times a year in Georgia Trend.) Frazier has moved to Northeast Georgia, where he runs several radio stations. A sad chapter from the Atlanta Games ended just a few miles from his home, in Murphy, N.C., where the park bomber Eric Rudolph was captured in 2003. "I broke down and cried when they caught him," Frazier says. "That brute was the only blight on our Olympics."
Since 1996 the city has hosted two Super Bowls, all-star games, college bowl games, NCAA Basketball Tourna-ment games. Civic boosters like the Atlanta Sports Council now claim the city is the sports capital of the world. That may or may not be nonsense, but it’s a title Payne could be proud of. He always said it was about the sports. Everything else was happenstance.
"So many people have assumed I had this great motivation as a civic-minded leader, that the growth of the community and jobs and the tax base was important to me," Payne says. "Those things never crossed my mind. Now, having said that, a lot of big stuff has happened since the Olympics, but as a consequence, not an objective. What stands out for me is the legacy of possibility."