To suggest Atlanta was a long shot to win the bid to host the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games would grossly misstate the case even by the most hyperbolic standards. What most assumed would be a coronation of Athens (Greece) reasserting itself as the ancestral heir of the Olympic flame, resulted in mid-size city in America’s South upsetting the Hellenic capital to win rights to host the 100th anniversary of the Modern Olympics. It’s been 20 years since Atlanta hosted a rather unique Olympic festival, with opinions varying on the legacy of the Games to the city of Atlanta, and the Olympic movement in general. Beset by transportation and technology challenges at the beginning and a tragic bombing in the middle, Atlanta rallied to stage a “most exceptional” games, perhaps generously stated in the minds of many. Here, I review the key events surrounding the Atlanta Olympics, share little-known facts, and look at the lasting legacy of the Centennial Games 20 years on.
A “Bid-time” Story
Atlanta beat out 14 cities to become the U.S. candidate city for the 1996 Games, with Minneapolis and San Francisco being first and second runners-up respectively. But that’s as far as Atlanta’s Olympic bid was supposed to go, as it competed against prohibitive favorite Athens, as well as globally recognized cities, Toronto and Melbourne, for the final selection. Though Atlanta would prevail in the final round of voting at the 96th IOC session in Tokyo on September 18, 1990, its selection was rather controversial given how unlikely it was. The irony of Greece losing out is not entirely lost on Olympic historians. At the first IOC Congress in 1894 (Officially titled, Congress of the Revival of the Olympic Games) at the Sorbonne in Paris, delegates overwhelmingly selected London as the host city for the first modern Olympic games to be held in 1896. However, through controversial and murky circumstances not fully understood to this day, the founder of the modern Olympics, the Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, muscled Athens thru on the basis of a previously undisclosed arrangement with King George I of Greece. One hundred years later, Athens would lose to Atlanta in circumstances much more transparent, but perhaps not fully understood.
Preparing the City – Finances and Venues
Centennial Olympic Park is one of the most successful legacies of the Games. (ATR)
The Olympic announcement launched over $1 billion of construction projects in and around the City, including the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park plaza, which served as the center for tourism and Olympic activity during the Games. Additionally, an 80,000-seat stadium was built for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the athletics events. Several non-sports facilities were either renovated or received funding, such as the drug testing center at the Morehouse School of Medicine. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, ACOG, was formed as a nonprofit for managing the operational elements of the Games, with Billy Payne as its CEO and Ambassador Andrew Young as its Co-CEO. The Atlanta financial model was built on private funding and selling corporate sponsorships and domestic television broadcast rights as means for funding the games. Atlanta organizers were wary of the $1.6 billion debt incurred by Montreal hosting the 1976 Games 20 years earlier, and as a result, ACOG leadership employed shrewd marketing tactics, while leveraging the extensive reach of its leadership team in diplomatic and corporate circles. Though charges of over commercialization of the Games would later surface by the IOC, as well as several in the media from various press outlets. it is instructive to note the IOC signed off with enthusiasm on this funding model, perhaps with the thinking the Games would reap similar benefits like the $233 million surplus which accrued from the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984. In the end, the Atlanta Olympics made a modest profit of $10 million, but more noteworthy, left no debt for its taxpayers.
The 1996 Olympic Torch Relay – Increased Brand Value
Muhammad Ali’s lighting of the Olympic cauldron during opening ceremonies of the 1996 Centennial Games easily endures as one of the most moving images of the 20th century. But the moment also did something else. It elevated the prestige and brand value of the Olympic torch relay. It gave cause to not just HOW the Olympic cauldron was lit, as it dramatically was by the archer in Barcelona 4 years earlier, but WHO is the final torch bearer. In 1996, the Olympic torch relay attracted $20 million worth of sponsorship from several companies, with Coca Cola holding title with a $12 million contribution. Twenty years later, Coca Cola is still there, now joined by Nissan and Bradesco to sponsor a combined $196 million for the 2016 edition of the Olympic torch relay. Without question, Atlanta’s dramatic lighting brought new visibility to what has become the most valuable asset in the Olympic movement.
Hosting (and Healing) the World
The Atlanta Olympic Games were the equivalent of staging five Super Bowls every day for 17 days with a fixed start time and no ability to reschedule. For the first time in modern Olympic history, all 197 National Olympic Committees honored the invitation to attend, with over 10,000 athletes participating, making it the largest Olympics in history to date.
Andrew Young speaks to media at the 20th anniversary celebration. (ATR)
In a recent media chat celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Games, Ambassador Young recalled his fondest memory of the Olympics: the marching into opening ceremonies, together, of the delegations of Iran, Iraq and Israel. The Ambassador also spoke of some of the other “Quiet Miracles” that occurred during the Atlanta Olympics. He remembers 37 nations at war in one way or another during the summer of 1996, but each nation honored an “Olympic” truce while the games were taking place. This truce allowed UNICEF to go in to these countries and vaccinate children in the affected nations. Country music superstar Garth Brooks wrote a check for $1 million to kick start the UNICEF vaccination campaign as a part of the broader agreement between Atlanta organizing officials and the United Nations.
Atlanta is also where technology played a pivotal role in not just winning the bid for the City, but delivering the games. These Games ushered in the Internet era for the Olympics, where competition results and athlete profiles were posted online for the first time. Despite early troubles such as errant or delayed results, the technology team recovered to stabilize the Games Management and Results Systems respectively, and most systems performed quite well for the rest of the Olympic festival. Regrettably, perception is reality and for many, the Games are remembered as being plagued by technology issues.
The Atlanta Olympics had its share of controversy. Beyond technology problems, an inadequate transportation plan lacking synchronicity and trained drivers with knowledge of city roads and how to access venues was a very real problem with these games. From athletes and officials not arriving at venues on time to ACOG officials offering refunds to journalists and spectators who missed events or were late to events, the transportation failures at the Atlanta Olympics caused the IOC to change its transportation protocol for future Olympic cities. For the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Olympic Route Network and the Paralympic Route Network introduced so called “game lanes”, to give priority to “Olympic family” traffic. For the 2016 Games in Rio, the city has designated 161 miles of its traffic lanes for Olympic personnel.
The other area of blight to the Atlanta Olympics were charges of over commercialization, particularly from street vendors hawking unauthorized merchandise. This was driven, in part, by the Atlanta City Council, upset that it was excluded by ACOG from reaping some of the financial benefits of the games, actually selling vendor space, kiosks and stalls on streets around Olympic venues and Centennial Olympic park as a means of generating revenue for the city. In other words, a dignified Centennial Olympiad turned into a tawdry flea market for cheap, knock-off Olympic merchandise. This rivalry between ACOG, the recognized Olympic authority, and the City of Atlanta itself, caused the IOC to demand future organizing committees have control over their municipalities to prevent this type of conflict of interest.
The most ill-fated moment of the Games involved the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park, eight days into the event, causing the death of two people and injuring over 100. It forced the closure of the park for 3 days, and while the actual competition schedule of the games itself was not impacted, the bombing will, unfortunately, always be a part of the Atlanta Olympic conversation.
Olympic Legacy – Enduring and Visible
The Olympic Games have had a $5 billion positive impact to the city, two decades later. Atlanta, like Barcelona before it, successfully leveraged its Olympic Games to introduce itself to the world as a global center for innovation, technology, sports, academia, media, entertainment and business development. Atlanta’s Olympic legacy, at least in part, can be delineated as follows:
Sporting Legacy – Post-Event Usage
A statue of Pierre de Cubertin welcomed attendees to the Olympics. (ATR)
Renovations to the Omni Arena (later replaced with Philips Arena) and the Georgia Dome, which hosted basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics, helped Atlanta keep its professional sports franchises in basketball and football (American).
The Olympic stadium was reconfigured for Atlanta’s baseball team, the Braves, where they played for 18 years. In 2017, the Braves are moving to another facility, but the Olympic stadium will be reconfigured again for use as a football stadium for Georgia State University.
Nine of the major 1996 Olympic venues continue to serve the community in 2016, including the Georgia International Horse Park, located 40 minutes outside the City.
Atlanta now attracts premier sporting events which include:
• Two Super Bowls of American Football (1999, 2019)
• Collegiate Football National Championship Game (2018)
• Major League Baseball All -Star Game (2000)
• The NCAA Men’s Final Four (2000, 2007, 2013, 2020)
• The NCAA Women’s Final Four (2003)
• The NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships (2006, 2016)
Atlanta became a city brand to the world, many of whom confused Atlanta with Atlantic City (New Jersey) prior to the Games
Atlanta has seen a 30% rise in companies which have moved their global headquarters to Atlanta following the Games. It now ranks ahead of Boston
Atlanta’s population has increased from 3.2 million in 1996, to 5.5 million in 2016
The number of hotel rooms has increased from 50,000 to approximately 100,000 – the city is now a hub for major conventions and conferences
Urban and Campus Renewal
The 21-Acre Centennial Park area now includes the Georgia Aquarium (the world’s largest), The World of Coca Cola Museum, and the College Football Hall of Fame
The Aquatic Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been significantly upgraded into a multipurpose recreational center, and hosted the collegiate national swimming championships in March 2016.
The Olympic Village became dormitories for students at both Georgia Tech and Georgia State University
Urban renewal projects included burying power lines, expanding walkways, improving signage and the redesign of several parks and plazas
Atlanta – Twenty Years Later
Two decades after the closing ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics, Atlanta has become a different city. Beyond sports, hosting the Olympics brought a certain pride to residents of the city as they warmly greeted the world. Though to be clear, it wasn’t perfect. In addition to the challenges previously mentioned, several low-income neighborhoods, particularly in the poorer African-American communities around some of the major Olympic venues, were clearly excluded from the Olympic experience, and received little to no benefit from the Games being located a stone’s throw away from their communities. Additionally, because ACOG and the Atlanta City Council competed against each other in many respects, it prevented the Olympics from being used to align with the broader developmental objectives of the City of Atlanta in key areas, including transportation expansion.
Following the Games, several high-rise residential and office buildings sprang up around the Centennial Park area as a part of the post-Games real estate boom. Less than a decade later, the housing market collapse and broader recession would be a painful reminder of what happens with euphoric real estate development, as many of the units were unoccupied with developers incurring massive losses.
All things considered, 20 years later, Atlanta is a different place with a very bright future. In addition to its elevated status as a city known around the world, Atlanta is much more “Green”, more diverse and more open. From its long shot Olympic bid, to its upset win, to its successful hosting and undeniable legacy, the City of Atlanta did what many believed was nearly impossible. With a strong vision, careful planning and a sheer will to win, the City of Atlanta came together and delivered on an Olympic-sized dream.
Written by Idy Uyoe, M.A.
Idy Uyoe (www.idysports.com) is an Olympic scholar, commentator and sports marketing professional. He is an active member of the International Society of Olympic Historians and is the producer and host of the online series The Olympic Moment – with new episodes available on YouTube and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @idysports.