Commentary

Olympics' legacy beyond games

Atlanta's experience holds lessons for Chicago

Originally Published: July 28, 2009
By Emily Badger | Special to ESPNChicago.com

ATLANTA -- Inside a 3,000-square-foot, climate-controlled storage space in the basement of the Atlanta History Center sits much of what's physically left of the city's 1996 Summer Olympic Games: organizer Billy Payne's credentials, miniature replicas of Olympic street art, officially licensed Bud Light cans, ribbons from ribbon cuttings, scissors from ribbon cuttings.

Just about anything, it seems, constitutes an artifact.

Curator Don Rooney was mulling this when, as if on cue, he picked up the rubber-banded bundle that happened to be at hand.

"DNA testing swabs," he said, "for the gender verification tests carried out at Emory."

Olympic Village
Courtesy of Georgia TechAtlanta used the Olympics to revitalize its downtown area.
There are many kinds of Olympic legacies -- the legacy of parks and stadiums built, of neighborhoods altered, of tourism and investment boosted (or not), and, of course, this legacy of stuff. All of it adds up to what really matters for locals: not what happened during the two weeks of the Games but everything that was left over and that came afterward.

Mayor Richard M. Daley might be wrapped up in how Chicago will look on camera if the world's eyeballs focus on Chicago in 2016, but everyone else in town should want to know this: What will the city look like -- and get -- in the long run? Because you want to buy a lot more than a fleeting spectacle with an investment this big.

Atlanta offers a curious case study. In the telling of it here, the story isn't so much that Atlanta got to host an Olympics but that Atlanta got to host an Olympics no one thought it would get.

No city in the previous 50 years had won a bid on its first try, and Atlanta was up against sentimental centennial favorite Athens. In surveys of international opinion of Atlanta, foreigners said they loved the place. Especially the casinos.

"They were confusing us with Atlantic City," said Harvey Newman, a professor of public administration and urban studies at Georgia State.

Payne, the guy with the idea in the first place, had never been to an Olympics, at first didn't even have a passport.

"They were just looking for a hand to shake," Rooney recalled of one bid committee trip to Calgary, Alberta, "and here were these other cities vying for Games on into the future, past Atlanta, and they were so organized; there were limos pulling up, folks getting out, all of this. And Atlanta is over there with a rental car, wondering what they're going to do next, where they're going to go out to dinner."

People love this story, and the history center's Olympic museum tells it in detail, complete with a copy of the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the day the bid was announced: "We Finally Won Something!" one headline reads.

Atlanta didn't have going for it everything that Chicago does, with an international reputation already in place around more than misplaced casinos. Maynard Jackson, the mayor when Atlanta surprisingly won the bid, set out an ambitious agenda to "climb the twin peaks of Mount Olympus" -- put on a great Games, but also use the event to transform the whole city for the betterment of everyone who lived here.

Pre-Olympics, Atlanta had among the highest poverty rates in the country. The downtown was a blight of abandoned warehouses and homeless shelters officials couldn't figure out how to revitalize. And the city itself had a largely one-dimensional identity as a convention destination. Much of this changed in ways Atlanta still celebrates today.

But Newman suspects the change wasn't as sweeping as what Jackson had in mind. The major improvements are all tied directly to the Games' footprint: The Braves, who had been threatening in the late '80s to leave Fulton County Stadium for the suburbs, got a new home out of the repurposed Olympic Stadium. Georgia State, which had been exclusively a commuter school, inherited its first dorms from Olympic housing. Georgia Tech got 4,750 new dorm rooms and the foundation of a state-of-the-art recreation center built around the Olympic natatorium.

"This wouldn't have been possible without Olympic money," said Bill Miller, who was Georgia Tech's manager of Olympic planning. "The debt load would have been prohibitive."

Olympic Natatorioum
Courtesy of Georgia TechThe infrastructure left behind is the true Olympic legacy.
The university housing cost nearly $200 million, $47 million of which was paid for by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The rest was funded through state bonds. ACOG also paid $8 million to build permanent pools and facilities at the aquatic center, around which Georgia Tech eventually spent another $45 million for the stunning recreational center that was completed in 2004.

South of campus is perhaps the single biggest legacy, and the spot tourists visit for evidence the Games were played here: Centennial Olympic Park. Before the Games, Atlanta had no central congregating area in the way that Chicago has Grant Park.

In the midst of all those blighted downtown warehouses, which had soured the view out the windows of Coca-Cola's headquarters, Atlanta spent $50 million acquiring land and building a public park. Gary Stokan, head of the Atlanta Sports Council, sits in his office inside the chamber of commerce building on the park ticking off its aftereffects: $2.2 billion dollars of economic development has sprung up around it, he says; 2.5 million people annually funnel through the aquarium that was opened here in 2005, and 1.25 million people through the World of Coke. A civil and human rights museum is set to be built off the park, as well.

Just the day before, Stokan had been recounting all this to visitors from the U.S. Soccer bid committee scouting venue cities for a potential 2018 or 2022 World Cup.

"I'm not sure the city would be as flourishing as it is now," Stokan said, trying to imagine an Atlanta where the Olympics had never happened. "I think ultimately, somebody would have had the vision to attack downtown, to make it more user-friendly for corporations, for tourists, for convention visitors. Boy, what it would have been, and how long that would have taken&"

Newman suggests, though, that flourishing was limited largely to Olympic venues and not to all the neighborhoods around them or the lower-class residents who lived there. One exception was the area around Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace, just east of downtown and up the road from Ebenezer Baptist.

"Everybody knew the eyes of the world would be on the area around Olympic Stadium," Newman said, "and the area around Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home."

The bid committee had gone to great lengths to pitch Atlanta's civil rights history as an asset.

There was no venue planned for the neighborhood, although the marathon course ultimately wound through it. The National Park Service and well-organized residents restored the shotgun houses and Victorian homes in what's now a landmark district, while keeping original occupants in their homes. That pattern did not occur elsewhere. Some of the Olympic village was built on the site of the country's first public housing project, whose residents were scattered when the buildings were torn down and converted, post-Olympics, into mixed-income housing.

Residents around the Olympic Stadium were particularly incensed to have a second stadium built in their midst, alongside Fulton County Stadium. That neighborhood already had been altered dramatically by construction of Interstates 20 and 75/85, which cut a cross through the center of the city.

Atlanta, Newman explained, had a long history of displacing African-American residents for such projects, so many initially viewed the Olympics with suspicion. Chicago, Charles Rutheiser said, has the chance to do one better with a proposed community benefit agreement.

In Atlanta, said Rutheiser -- an urban development consultant who wrote the book "Imagineering Atlanta" -- "At the outset, for whatever reason, neither the Olympic organizers or the city government thought they needed to pay attention to physical infrastructure outside the venues because the real legacy would be Atlanta's enhanced image before the world."

The international media were not immediately kind to that image. The mascot looked funny, some of the press buses broke down and the French journalists didn't like the food. Visitors criticized the excess commercialism, and then-IOC head Juan Antonio Samaranch famously forgot to say this had been the best Games ever.

But 13 years later, Atlanta has proved one rule of Olympic longevity: Over the years, people who weren't at the Games, didn't taste the food or ride on the press bus forget about that stuff. But the city still gets to say on a sign on the highway as you pull out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport that it hosted the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.

"After the Games," Newman said, "they knew us as Atlanta."

As in, not Atlantic City.

After the Games, the city was still essentially a convention town without many world-class tourism spots, although places such as the aquarium have come with time. "The Olympics were held here," it turns out, can't be the main attraction in and of itself.

Rather, the Games might work best for a city's reputation -- and this applies to Chicago -- if they serve to draw international attention to what's already in place. Using the Olympics to build an international city from the ground up, for years to come, is much harder.