Reigniting Atlanta’s Olympic flame

As shockers go, this one was Olympic-sized.

In September 1990, the International Olympic Committee emerged after 10 tense hours in a Tokyo meeting room to announce that Atlanta had been selected to host the 1996 Summer Games. It culminated a 3-1/2-year underdog saga in which Atlanta first beat out a confident Minneapolis to become the U.S. candidate, then snatched the Centennial Olympics right out from under the noses of prohibitive favorite Athens, Greece.

Now prepare yourselves for another shock: The Olympic movement is once again knocking on metro Atlanta’s door. The U.S. Olympic Committee recently queried more than two dozen American cities about hosting the 2024 Games, including Atlanta.

Mayor Kasim Reed, who received the letter, called the idea “worthy of thoughtful consideration,” and the Atlanta Sports Council and Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau are both taking a “wait and see” approach.

A second Olympics in Atlanta isn’t so far-fetched. The city already has many of the must-have infrastructure, including the world’s busiest airport, ample hotel space and several key venues. But the city would have to overcome negative perceptions of the first Olympics, which international observers viewed as overly commercial, and find a pitchman in the mold of Billy Payne, who turned a pipe dream in 1987 into a debt-free Games in 1996.

No one has stepped forward to fill that role, but interviews with a wide variety of metro Atlantans suggest that the Olympic fervor is still burning strong, even among conservative political officials wary of spending public money.

“I have a very open mind about it,” state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, the House Appropriations Committee vice-chairman. Echoing the comments of about a dozen legislators from both parties interviewed at the Capitol, Harbin continued: “Of course, there’s always a concern over money. But if they requested it and we’re really in the running, it speaks volumes to what Atlanta is in the eyes of the rest of the country and the world.”

For some metro Atlantans, there’s no question but that we should fling the door wide open again. “Yes! Excitedly, overwhelmingly YES!” Roswell resident Jerri Peterson practically pleaded about an “Atlanta 2024” bid. “I can’t think of one negative reason why we would not want it to come back.”

Peterson’s enthusiasm resonates with Atlantan Charlie Battle, a key player in the city’s 1996 bid, and now a consultant to host city wannabes around the globe.

“I think it’s interesting that people want to talk about this so much. It’s probably not the right time for (Atlanta) to go back (for another bid), but it’s gratifying that people are so enthusiastic about it because it shows the power of the Olympics and how important it was to the city,” said Battle, fresh off a trip to Istanbul, where he was busy helping that city prepare for a visit from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on a bid for 2020. “It was an amazing thing that we pulled off. It was a ‘One moment in time’ thing that put the city on the map.”

Atlanta’s venues

Many people, of course, can think of plenty of reasons why Atlanta shouldn’t host another Olympics. Some longtime residents, still scarred by the international media’s depictions of Atlanta as hopelessly backward even before a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, would prefer to let sleeping bubbas lie. Plus there are practical concerns: New York and Chicago spent upwards of $10 million apiece to become the USOC’s candidate this decade. Each was then quickly eliminated by the IOC in favor of London (2012) and Rio de Janeiro (2016) respectively.

Meanwhile, the USOC’s letter cautions that a host city’s operating budget for the Games would exceed $3 billion — “not including costs associated with venue construction and other infrastructure.”

“I have no idea what the financial implications are and whether it would be worth it from that standpoint,” said state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who nevertheless professed himself “open to exploring” the idea. “I will say this: The Olympics did a lot for our city and region. It put us on the map internationally.”

Still, for all the half-joking talk going around about Atlanta being able to host a “turnkey” Olympics — for starters, the 1996 cauldron, swimming pool and athletes’ village all are still standing — it clearly wouldn’t be that easy.

The Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, where five Olympic sports were contested, was always intended to anchor a 300,000 square foot campus recreation center built after the Games. The soaring, open-sided water “stadium” that seated 15,000 was eventually enclosed and topped with six basketball courts, a running track and more. The pool still hosts major swimming competitions, said recreation center director, Michael Edwards, who managed the aquatics center in ‘96; an actual Olympics is pretty much the only thing it couldn’t host now, mostly because of significantly reduced seating.

The same issue arises with what was the 85,000 seat Centennial Olympic Stadium. It’s now Turner Field. What would we do, even some supporters of a 2024 bid wonder? Turn it back into a stadium capable of hosting Opening and Closing ceremonies and send the Braves out on another endless road trip that summer?

Who would lead?

Equally crucial is the question of who might play the Billy Payne role this time around. The USOC likely is trying to reassert its control over the bidding process after New York’s and Chicago’s high-profile flameouts. Payne, now chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, wouldn’t comment for this story. Still, most Atlantans agree a 2024 bid would require a strong local visionary along the lines of the former UGA football player who got the “crazy” idea to go after the Olympics in 1987 and didn’t take his foot off the gas until the last Paralympian had left town nine years later.

“You need that one guy who’s going to be the leader, the sounding board, the rallier,”said Jeremy Levin, 40, who worked at the 1996 Olympic baseball venue the year after he graduated from the University of Arizona and stayed here afterwards. Now a Turner Sports producer, Levin recently tried to spark interest in moving the Olympic cauldrons from a corner near Turner Field’s Blue Lot to a more prominent location like Centennial Olympic Park. The lack of enthusiastic response leads him to believe it could be hard to find someone to rally the troops for 2024, let alone win the battle.

“There wasn’t a huge groundswell of, ‘Yeah, we should do something to remember [1996],’” Levin sighed. “I think it would be really cool and great to have [the Olympics] back. But there are a lot of great cities out there that probably want it as much as Atlanta does. And Atlanta had it the last time it was in the U.S.”

And it could all be moot, anyway. One veteran Olympics observer insists there is “zero way” the 2024 Games will end up here. Along with Atlanta having to impress the USOC, “There are not fond memories within the IOC of the ‘96 Games,” said Alan Abrahamson, who covers Olympic developments on his web site and has written books with Michael Phelps and Apolo Ohno. “People bring up the technical woes, the transportation woes and the bombing.”

Abrahamson and other experts also say the nature of the Olympics has changed since Atlanta staged the Games with largely private financing. Bigger and more expensive, the Games of the 21st century need strong government backing and underwriting.

Then again, no one gave Atlanta much of a chance the first time around. USOC officials wouldn’t answer follow-up questions about the letter, which went to the mayors of the country’s 25 largest cities as well as some “that have previously expressed an interest in bidding.” That probably explains how places like Tulsa, Okla., and Rochester, N.Y., wound up on the list.

More likely the devil’s in the letter’s detailing of just some of the “many requirements” for a host city: 45,000 hotel rooms, an Olympic Village able to sleep 16,500, public transportation and an international airport. No specifics on the world class venues needed for some three dozen sports, although having pulled it off once before — along with hosting multiple Final Fours, Super Bowls and World Series — should count for something, right?

“In terms of the sporting competition in Atlanta, I think everyone was quite satisfied with the facilities,” admitted Dick Pound, the longtime influential IOC member from Canada who was an outspoken critic of what he saw as the ‘96 Games’ heavy commercialism. Now he credits Payne et al. with ensuring that some of those same facilities didn’t turn into embarrassingly pricey post-Games white elephants, much like 2008 host Beijing’s dramatic “Bird’s Nest” stadium has become: “That was a good example of using the Games well.”

Throw in other examples, such as the continuing development downtown in and around Centennial Olympic Park, and maybe the desire to explore another bid isn’t so shocking after all.

“Maybe this would be the impetus we’d need for thinking about getting the Beltline up and going,” said state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates.

Judy Smith is just as eager to revive the spirit of 1996.

“The Olympics had that magical power to bring us all together,” said Smith, a Roswell resident who volunteered for over a year organizing and running the rowing events at Lake Lanier. “We’ve been through some pretty tough times here with the economy and everything.

“We need that magical power here again.”

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