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  • Tuesday Talk -- Atlanta Olympics Brought Best Out of Athletes, City


    08/08/11

    George Hirthler is one of several bid consultants who got their starts with the Atlanta Olympics. (ATR)
    (ATR) Olympics experts Ed Hula and George Hirthler tell Around the Rings no host city has ever come alive quite like Atlanta did 15 years ago for the Centennial Games.

    Hula, founder and editor of ATR, cut his teeth within the Olympic Movement covering Atlanta 1996's bid campaign. Hirthler, the man who wrote its bid book, has since consulted for 10 total bids, most recently Munich 2018.

    In this edition of Tuesday Talk, Hula and Hirthler reminisce about the ups and downs of a Games marked by tragedy, triumph and a legacy as complex as the city itself.

    ATR reporter Matthew Grayson does the asking. They do the answering. 

    Matthew Grayson: Fifteen years after the closing of the Games, what’s the first thought that comes to mind when I mention the Atlanta Olympics?
    Muhammad Ali moments before lighting the Olympic cauldron. (ATR)

    George Hirthler: It’s always the same image – it’s Muhammed Ali holding the torch just before lighting the caldron. It’s just such an iconic image, and like all the greatest moments in Olympic history, it’s infused with meaning beyond the realm of sport. This was a great moment in which America was embracing one of its greatest athletic heroes again after a long and storied career but a career with political conflict and other things. It was kind of like a beautiful moment of homecoming for him and whole nation.

    Ed Hula: I think of all the throngs of people, the crowds in downtown Atlanta, the way the city came to life with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people milling about and gathering in downtown Atlanta for the Olympics Games – something we’ve never seen before or since in the city of Atlanta. I think it was maybe even a first for an Olympic city to see such a large gathering.

    GH: That was part of the genius of Centennial Olympic Park. It gave everyone a single point to aim for, and it filled the streets in a really remarkable way. Other than Lillehammer, which was a very small alpine village in Norway, I’ve never seen the streets as packed anywhere as they were in Atlanta.

    MG: I was 10 years old at the time of the Games and remember Michael Johnson’s gold shoes perhaps more than anything else. Remind me of some of Atlanta’s greatest competition moments.
    Bela Karolyi carries newly crowned Olympic champion Kerri Strug off the floor of the Georgia Dome. (Getty Images)

    EH: There was certainly the U.S. women’s gymnastics team taking the team gold medal with Kerri Strug completing her routine with the bum ankle. Coach Bela Karolyi carried her off in his arms because that ankle just couldn’t stand anymore.

    GH: I’m going with the 85,000 fans that filled the stadium over in Athens for the U.S. women’s gold medal win over China in soccer. Andre Agassi winning the gold medal in men’s tennis and claiming that it was the greatest single moment of his career, that he’d hold it above all of his other crowns, was another.

    And then there was the Dream Team II with Shaquille O’Neal, which was huge. Carl Lewis became the first long-jumper to win four golds in a row, matching that great record by Al Oerter of winning four track and field events in succession.

    EH: This is a pretty good Olympics for athletes. There are detractors for Atlanta – people who say it was too commercial, it was too this, it was too that – nobody ever really had anything bad to say about the play of field, the quality of competition. The actual events of the Olympic Games were conducted really in superior fashion.

    GH: That is the one positive that you constantly get about Atlanta. They will all admit that Atlanta had more sold-out events and more full stadiums than anybody in Olympic history. Even the preliminary team handball games were sellouts. I know because I went to a couple of them.

    We sold 8.6 million tickets out of 11 million tickets. That’s two million more than Sydney sold, and that’s the next closest Games. That’s more tickets than Seoul and Barcelona sold combined, and certainly more than Barcelona and Athens if you look at those two, but the other thing is we sold more tickets to women’s events – 3.9 million – than Barcelona sold in total. It was an extraordinary achievement in that regard.

    MG: How did the Centennial Olympic Park bombing affect the remainder of the Games?
    The blast struck at the heart of Centennial Olympic Park, killing two and wounding 111 more. (Getty Images)

    GH: The park was closed for three days, and I was one of the 40,000 people in the park on the morning that they called renewal and remembrance. [Former mayor] Andy Young spoke and his famous phrase from that was “We’re here to proclaim a victory. We’re here, not to wallow in tragedy, but to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.” His whole message was that the voice of peace and friendship through sport will not be stilled by violence, and it really did turn out to be kind of a spiritual renewal, and in a strange way it echoed of course Avery Brundage’s great phrase from 1972 in Munich: “The Games must go on.” Atlanta and Munich will forever be joined as two Games that were the gospel of peace, if you will, through a note of violence.

    EH: In the wake of the bombing, I was very much focused on how the IOC was going to react to this story and how the organizing committee reacted to this story. The question that morning was very much what would happen to events the day after the bombing. Would the Games go on? We got very early indication from [ACOG president] Billy Payne and the Atlanta Olympics that events would continue as planned. I guess that was our first sign that the bombing would not derail the Olympics. It would certainly, as it turned out, cast a cloud over the remainder of the Games and will indelibly mark the Atlanta Games as one of those struck by a terrorist attack.
    Thousands flocked to Centennial Olympic Park upon its reopening days after the bombing. (Getty Images)

    GH: It also opened the door for an incredible demonstration of the resiliency of the Olympic fanbase, both in the U.S. and around the world because, to your point Ed, the next day the streets were equally crowded. Certainly, the park was empty for a few days because it was closed but the people were out, and there was a spirit of “Let’s keep this thing going. Let’s keep this party and celebration and spirit alive.” And it did in some ways lift the spirit and the determination of the fan in an unusual way. No one wanted to see the athletes denied their moment of glory again. No one wanted to see that dark cloud hanging over the Games and so there was a special spirit when the renewal took place in the park and the reopening occurred, and that park was still until the very end of the Games shoulder-to-shoulder the whole way.

    EH: There was this big question of what would happen to this major investment in the center of the city: Centennial Olympic Park. Certainly, the Games went on, but all these sponsors and others had these big pavilions erected in the middle of the park. Billy Payne had gone through a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make this new urban park happen before the Games, and when it did open, we had to go through mag and bag. We had to go through security. That was I guess one of the fallouts. The Centennial Olympic Park showed the Olympic Movement the value of live sites. It set the tone for future organizing committees to follow to have these places where people could gather and mingle and all that.

    GH: Sydney took that public domain celebration to a whole new level, but they saw it here first.

    EH: And since then, whenever there have been live sites, they’ve been carefully controlled for security and safety in light of the Centennial Olympic Park. It’s a tradition that was started in Atlanta, and some very hard lessons were learned at that stage as a result.

    MG: At the closing ceremony, late IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch famously said “Well done, Atlanta” and called the Games “most exceptional”, a dramatic break from his tradition of labeling each successive edition the best Olympics ever. What do you read into this?

    EH: He could not take the title of “best Games ever” away from his hometown of Barcelona, the Games that preceded Atlanta. I think there was just something there that would prevent him from declaring Atlanta better than Barcelona.
    Former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch said the Atlanta Olympics were "most exceptional" but not the greatest ever. (Getty Images)

    And then I had a time explaining to some people why they really weren’t the best Games ever. You had a bombing in the middle of the Games. You had transportation problems for the media. You had a results system that melted down in the first days of the Games, and news agencies couldn’t get the right results to report. There were glitches like that that tended to take it away from the realm of being called “the best ever”.

    And very wisely, IOC president Jacques Rogge has since refused to make any such declarations about each host city, and I think Samaranch also found himself shying away from that at his last Olympics, which was Sydney in 2000.

    GH: To the problems with, of course, terrorism, transportation, technology, there was also basically a marketing ambush planned by the city itself, and the city really did fill the sidewalks with what became called “trinkets and trash”. It was unfortunate, and it created an image that wasn’t outstanding. President Samaranch and his scriptwriters, with all due respect, probably could have found a better phrase than “most exceptional”. He could have simply said these were great Games. He didn’t have to use the term “greatest”.

    The IOC has lost the legacy of Atlanta, which is really an excellent legacy on many fronts, because it maintained this image of the Games as inferior. He could have probably pointed out about seven things. He could have said:

    Upwards of 85,000 fans packed Sanford Stadium in Athens for the U.S. women's gold medal win over China in soccer. (Getty Images)
    1) You built all of your eight new venues out of marketing revenue. That’s excellent.

    2) You built new college dorms for 5,000 students out of your marketing revenues. That’s excellent.

    3) You built the largest new park in the U.S. in the last 25 years – 21 acres – that’s excellent.

    4) You sold more tickets to Olympic events than Barcelona and Seoul combined – 8.6 million – that’s excellent.

    5) You sold more tickets to women’s events – 3.9 million – than Barcelona sold in total. That’s excellent.

    6) You’ve got a fantastic post-Games plan for your Olympic Stadium – the home of the Braves – that’s excellent.

    7) And you’ve created a new model for public housing that – he didn’t know this at the time - is going to become a model for America, and that was excellent.

    There are a lot of things he could have celebrated, including the fact that Atlanta sold out so many events and cheered on so many athletes on to great victory.

    EH: You mentioned the stadium, though. The fact that the stadium became a baseball park was obviously its best and highest post-Games use, but there are still a number of people in the Olympic Movement who are unhappy with the fact that the Olympics built a new baseball stadium for Ted Turner.
    Post-Games, the Olympic Stadium was converted into Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves. (ATR)

    GH: Isn’t that a phenomenally ironic criticism? Jacques Rogge has come out and said that Atlanta really found a great use for its stadium, and it’s a good model and an excellent model and a superb model. That stadium is used for 80 home games a year for the Atlanta Braves. If you compare Atlanta 1996 and the use of its Olympic Stadium to that of Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and still under question, of course, London 2012, I think the IOC would have to proclaim Atlanta the finest story of Olympic Stadium legacy in the modern era.

    EH: Well, the one that works the best.

    GH: There’s really no criticism to be had. They had to build all their venues out of marketing revenues because it’s the way the Games were funded, and the IOC elected us on that basis.
    Ed Hula will cover his sixth straight Summer Games at the 2012 Olympics in London. (ATR)

    MG: The existence of Around the Rings is one of many legacies of the Games you won’t find mentioned on their Wikipedia page, as is your residency in Atlanta, George. Tell me some other facets of this city that even residents such as myself might not recognize as Olympic legacies.

    GH: Well, the community of Olympic consultants is certainly a great one. I think Atlanta has put people like Terrence Burns at Helios, Charlie Battle and Brad Copeland here at IconoLogic who have had continuing professional roles consulting in either Olympic bids or Olympic Games or Olympic sponsorship marketing over the years. There’s quite a community of people. I’ve many times been in lobbies of distant hotels in world capitals standing next to Ed Hula, and we look around the lobby to see how many other Atlantans we can count, and we usually get up to six or eight, so it’s a pretty phenomenal legacy on a professional level.
    Techwood Homes, the country's first public housing project, became Centennial Place thanks to the Games. (Atlanta Housing Authority)

    There’s also a couple of legacies from Atlanta that have really touched the U.S. in a big way, particularly the public housing legacy. At the time of the Games, Techwood Homes was one of the worst public housing projects in the U.S. in terms of drug infestation and economic problems and poverty, and the Olympic Committee had a vision for rebuilding that and the Atlanta Housing Authority got behind it and actually secured the funds from the federal government to rebuild Techwood Homes into Centennial Place, and it was the first rebuilding of a public housing project in the U.S. in I don’t know how many years. Since then, Atlanta has rebuilt I think 15 of 18 public housing projects on the same model. It’s become a model for the U.S. A lot of people don’t see that and don’t realize that. It’s one of those lost legacies that the IOC would actually be smart to celebrate.

    EH: I agree with you on the public housing part of it. I would say that probably for the city of Atlanta, the biggest most physical legacy that you could say came to the community was the way neighborhoods now around Turner Field – around Olympic Stadium – were redone, neighborhoods around Centennial Olympic Park, and they endure in that way today. They’re nice places to visit, they’re nice places to live. They haven’t slid into disrepair and the problems that existed before the Games.

    But on the other side of that, I’m really disappointed with the way Olympic sport legacy seems to have not come into bloom here in Atlanta post-Games. Frankly, I’m hard-pressed to talk about a city that’s hosted the Olympics where it really has caught on post-Olympic Games, but I thought there would be much more in the way of attention to Olympic sports in Atlanta after the Olympics, inspiring young people to take up rowing or table tennis or handball.
    The rowing course at Lake Lanier is Atlanta's only Olympic venue to host a world championship (canoeing, 2003) since the Games. (Getty Images)

    GH: You can cite a few sports that have grown immensely, including of course soccer, but then the World Cup was before Atlanta and the Women’s World Cup followed. You’re right. There hasn’t been a lot of grassroots sports development of Olympic sports.

    EH: And Atlanta itself it seems could do more to promote itself as a past Olympic host and as a host to other Olympic-style sports events, which really hasn’t happened. We’re still an American football-focused city, a baseball-focused city. Those sports occupy the top rung on the ladder of attention for Atlantans. The Olympic stuff is nice every four years but not more often than that.

    GH: Atlanta did have an objective through the Games to gain recognition as a world capital of sport and, to Ed’s point, he’s right. Subsequent to the Games, we had a couple of Super Bowls – well, one right before and one after – we had Major League Baseball and NBA and NHL All-Star Games. We’ve have a couple of NCAA regional championships, PGA Tour Players Championships, Peach Bowl and NASCAR races and you look at that list and it’s either collegiate or professional sports in the U.S., and there isn’t a single other Olympic sport on there. Not too many other championships have come our way, and it’s unfortunate.

    MG: With 15 years of perspective, how else did the Olympics change Atlanta?

    GH: Centennial Olympic Park generated a renewal of downtown that brought a lot of investment down there. Before the Games, I think there were 5,000 people living in the downtown area, and after the Games within 10 years there were 30,000. 6,000 new hotel rooms, $1.8 billion in investments in new construction downtown.
    The World of Coke is one of many major developments to open around Centennial Olympic Park since the Games. (ATR)

    Around Centennial Olympic Park, you’ve got the aquarium, the World of Coke, the new Phillips Arena – there’s a certain gravitas to the development that’s taken place down there. It’s pretty remarkable what that park became an anchor for, and it still remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city.

    EH: I wouldn’t say that anyone is saying we’re going to be in downtown Atlanta now because the Olympics were here. What has happened in downtown Atlanta as far as rebirth as a center for people to live didn’t come immediately after the Olympics, but I think the 1996 Olympics certainly got the ball rolling.

    MG: Is Atlanta still looked upon with disdain by the European contingent of the Olympic Movement?

    GH: In conversations and conferences and planning for future Games, Atlanta is always at the top of the shortlist of cities that take a little bit of a beating, but I think the image is improving overall. I think Jacques Rogge has done some valuable work in that regard by citing Atlanta’s excellent venue legacy without a single white elephant out of eight new venues built.

    The negative image has faded a little bit, but the city still takes a beating here and there. You could see it when Chicago bid. There were a couple of hints that the numbers that Chicago was projecting for sponsorships might make it another Atlanta because it would be cash-flow challenged, and the fact that in the U.S. we don’t have federal government guarantees for our Games, which is one of the primary bidding legacies from Atlanta. Right after Atlanta, the IOC demanded that all cities bidding had full 100 percent government guarantees behind their Games as a sort of litmus test for whether you were really ready to go or not.
    Atlanta's mistakes became valuable lessons for Sydney 2000 CEO Sandy Hollway (right) and his army of 50,000 volunteers, says Ed Hula. (ATR)

    EH: What Atlanta provided was a good example for successive organizing committees to learn from. As a result of the problem they had with the results system at the start of the Games, there hasn’t been anything like that to deal with in succeeding Olympics. They know to get that part of it right now.

    GH: I have a lot of friends who were on the organizing committee in Sydney who would tell you right now that Atlanta was a godsend for them. They learned a lot, and Atlanta’s generosity in opening up its doors and sort of forming a transfer of knowledge practice that Sydney then professionalized – a lot of people from Sydney will tell you that Atlanta was perhaps the greatest university in the management of the Games that they ever had.

    EH: Atlanta was the first organizing committee to have to really formally present some sort of transfer of knowledge program for Sydney to pick up. The mistakes of Atlanta became the lessons for future organizing committees to take on and make something with, and the Olympics as a whole are a much better operation as a result of Atlanta’s problems.

    MG: Is there any irony that the Atlanta Olympics provided the personnel still involved with many European bids?

    EH: It just shows their appreciation of smart people, of people who know what’s going on with the Olympics. Regardless of what Europeans may think about Americans and about people who may have been involved with the Atlanta Olympics, I think they also realize the expertise that grew out of Atlanta.

    GH: Atlanta really did run an excellent bid campaign. That was back in the day, of course, when hospitality was allowed, and I think we had 75 IOC members visit the city during the bid cycle. Atlanta’s bid book, which of course I was the writer of and my partner at the time Brad Copeland led the design effort on, actually became the standard that the IOC then issued and used in its guidelines for the next cycle of cities in 2000. That certainly opened the door for me to work on the Istanbul 2000 campaign, and subsequent to that, I’ve been on eight additional campaigns, so with Munich I just finished my 10th Olympic bidding campaign, and all of that started right here in Atlanta.

    MG: What kind of image does Atlanta have within today’s Olympic Movement as a whole?
    Even today, Centennial Olympic Park remains a vibrant place to visit and to live. (ATR)

    EH: I think in time the flaws have faded a bit, that there are fewer people who are involved with the Olympic Movement who were involved with any of the anguished moments of Atlanta. On whole, the city held up well. It was a vibrant, alive place for the Olympic Games. Nobody can say anything about that. There will always be the footnote, the pause, that the bombing provides in memory of the Games, but at the same time, that’s an incident that’s helped make the Olympics more secure as we move ahead.

    GH: I do think Atlanta’s athletic legacy remains undeniable. There were 37 world records, 112 Olympic records, great competitions throughout the Games at all events, and most importantly, Atlanta still holds the record for most tickets sold.

    EH: Still more than Beijing, still more than London.

    GH: Nobody has come close to putting that many fans in the stands.

    MG: The U.S. hasn’t hosted the Summer Games since Atlanta, and the USOC says a bid for 2020 isn’t coming. What impact did the 1996 Olympics have on future bidding strategy, both from the U.S. and elsewhere?

    GH: I think it really did make it clear that we need to go to enter the Games with stronger guarantees, with stronger financial guarantees. One of the things that both Dan Doctoroff leading the New York 2012 bid and Pat Ryan leading the Chicago 2016 bid did was they put a lot of effort into creating assurances that the financial guarantees were in place. That’s a harder requirement for the U.S. to meet than most competitive bid cities because most of the cities come with full guarantees from their countries.

    EH: Certainly having Atlanta in 1996 has put the next U.S. Summer Olympics further down the pipe than it might be otherwise if we were just dealing with Los Angeles in 1984. It’s about time for the U.S. to be considering another Summer Olympic bid. Enough time has passed since Atlanta.

    Atlanta is kind of ancient history now. I don’t think the U.S. has to carry any baggage from Atlanta as it enters a new bid for the Summer Olympic Games whenever that would be. The changes that Atlanta have inspired and have resulted from Atlanta have now been somewhat institutionalized. As George was saying, the necessity of having government guarantees is now part of every bid. Atlanta couldn’t bid today without that kind of thing, and a U.S. bid for next Summer Olympics can’t proceed without significant guarantees of government support.
    The Atlanta Olympics came to a close Aug. 4, 1996. The U.S. hasn't hosted a Summer Games since. (Getty Images)

    I don’t think anybody is unhappy with the commercial success of the Atlanta Olympics or the sports success of the Atlanta Olympics.

    GH: $1.7 billion. These Games had a really balanced revenue stream. You’d have to look in the final report, but I think it’s close to 25 percent from tickets, which is really remarkable, 25 percent from the national marketing program and another 33 percent from broadcast rights. I think it was one of the most balanced commercial programs ever, and everything was done out of that commercial budget – construction of the venues – that’s not heard of anymore.

    Probably the primary legacy of Atlanta in terms of the budgets that OCOGs, that bids now put together – you cannot have capital expenses, and that means you can’t build venues out of your Olympic marketing revenue budget, out of the budget you’re raising. The IOC does not want to see capital expenditures out of that budget. That is also one of the legacies from Atlanta, so – as Vancouver did, as Beijing did, as London did – you need to get your governments to underwrite venue construction

    MG: Imagine Atlanta hadn’t hosted the Olympics. Would the same 1996 bid stand a chance in today’s summer Olympic bid process?

    GH: It’d have to be upgraded significantly. The storytelling would still be there – a new city in the American South, the American South having never hosted the Games before, the birthplace of civil rights, the parallelism between the values of the Civil Rights Movement and the values of the Olympic Movement – all of that would still play pretty well if Atlanta hadn’t hosted the Games. What would be in play right now, of course, you’d have to take the financial issues off the table, as they’d be quite strenuous.

    I think the city still has the hotel capacity, the convention space capacity, the stadiums, the transport system. Atlanta could do a better job.

    MG: Can Atlanta ever win the Games again?
    ACOG president Billy Payne at the 2004 groundbreaking of the Centennial Olympic Games Museum at the Atlanta History Center. (ATR)

    GH: Maybe in 100 years Atlanta might get in line for another Olympics after the Centennial Games are looked upon with great fondness with historical perspective for their achievements, but America has some fantastic cities waiting in the wings that all are worthy of a chance at the greatest civic prize in the world, so I would think Atlanta should be the caboose on the train of the bidders coming out of the U.S.

    EH: If Atlanta were bidding today, I think it would certainly have to conform with the standards that the IOC sets today for bid cities but in terms of personality, in terms of the effectiveness of having people who are able to communicate with IOC members, Atlanta would be a very very strong bidder today. Billy Payne was a great salesman for the Atlanta Games, and he had a group of people who were very loyal to him and very single-minded as well in their devotion to bringing the Games to Atlanta. That kind of personal touch I think is really essential to winning a successful bid these days, being able to relate and talk to the IOC members and convince them, get them on your side and win their trust. Atlanta had the team to do that back in the 1980s and I think the same sort of team could win it today.

    MG: But given the 1996 Olympics, Ed, can Atlanta ever host the Games again?

    EH: I would say it’ll be a long long time before Atlanta gets to host the Olympic Games again. Maybe 100 years, that kind of thing.

    Interview conducted by Matthew Grayson.

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