Assessing the Olympic Legacy
By Charles Rutheiser
Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 pp. 16-19
Compared to the massive displacements that accompanied the Olympics in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992) , the demolitions and removals occasioned by the 1996 Centennial Games in Atlanta are relatively minor. For example, several hundred thousand people were displaced by the Korean government’s efforts to make its capital a showplace for its new-found economic prosperity. Barcelona, too, utilized the occasion to relocate large numbers of its poor, although it did so as part of a comprehensive vision that included building a twenty-first-century urban infrastructure for itself. In the case of Atlanta, a good deal of damage has already been inflicted by three decades of renewal, redevelopment, and revitalization, although the fundamental unevenness of these processes has often been obscured by the metropolitan area’s fervid, long-lasting boom and the manifold labors of myriad imagineers.
What is highly ironic, given the course of subsequent events, is that Atlanta got the Games, in part, on the basis of what the AOCG and city leaders liked to call its peerless modern infrastructure. By this they referred not to the city’s roads, sewers, and viaducts–which actually proved in need of approximately a billion dollars in repairs–but such things as the MARTA rail system, Hartsfield International Airport, the Georgia Dome/World Congress Center complex, and the most extensive fiber-optic network in the world. Aside from the $150 million realized from the bond issue, which probably would have not been passed without the occasion of the Olympics to provide the motive force, most of the monies expended on infrastructure improvement will be spent to provide the World Congress Center with a new parking deck and International Plaza ($30 million) and the airport with a flashy new $300-plus-million postmodern ambience. The State Assembly declined, however, to provide the necessary 10 percent of expenses (the federal government would have provided the rest) to build a central multimodal station for a heavy rail system that would have ameliorated the metro area’s unwholesome addiction to the automobile. Instead of an integrated commuter rail network, Atlanta’s Olympic transportation legacy (aside from seeing if MARTA can work beyond its designed capacity for three weeks) will be the neo-Orwellian Advanced Transportation Management System and high-occupancy vehicle lanes for the expressways within the Perimeter.
While neighborhood revitalization will be limited to some showpiece developments in the vicinity of the stadium such as Summerhill’s Greenlea Commons North and Mechanicsville’s Street of Dreams (another pod of thirty upscale townhomes), the material legacy of the Games will consist of the venues, the Centennial Olympic Park, and the articulated network of pacified corridors and green spaces wrought by CODA, along with the controversial redevelopment of the Martin Luther King Historic Site. The Atlanta University Center will get three new athletic venues, while Georgia Tech gets a spanking new Natation Center and several hundred new dorm rooms. Georgia State University gets an improved gym, as well as the Techwood Olympic Villages to utilize as dormitories. Unfortunately three of the dorm buildings were constructed with defective foundations and are settling at an accelerated rate (over nine inches within the first year) . The University System of Georgia–and, by extension, state taxpayers–will be liable for dealing with these “minor” problems. Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves are, however, the greatest beneficiary of Olympic largesse, receiving a new stadium with all the trimmings, and sticking Fulton County taxpayers with a bill that they had little say in negotiating. Indeed, it is quite likely that the latter will be ultimately responsible for the cost of converting the Olympic Stadium into a baseball facility and demolishing the existing Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The Olympic/Braves stadium, along with non-Olympic plans for the new Hawks arena to be built on the bones of the existing Omni Coliseum, provide good examples of both Atlanta’s lingering fascination/compulsion for not-so-creative destruction (a condition with its origin in General William Tecumseh Sherman being “a little careless with fire”) and the accelerated dynamic obsoles-
cence of the built environment in our contemporary era. While the market-driven urban landscape has always been by nature “restless,” the increasingly frequent proclivity for building demolition into the construction plans for large civic structure verges on hyperactivity. Despite all the talk of the Olympic’s material legacy, many of the venues are, in fact, temporary constructions. In addition to the northern third of the Olympic Stadium, the rowing venue at Lake Lanier and the velodrome and the archery facilities at Stone Mountain will disappear after the Games, along with the water polo pool at Georgia Tech’s Natation Center. Almost a quarter of a million bleacher seats will be erected and dismantled (including the 52,000 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium), along with one million square feet of tent space and twenty-four miles of fencing. Indeed, the 1996 Olympics will be the most transient ever, leading one observer to refer to them as “the Disposable Games.” Without end-users, such as the State of Georgia and local governments, agreeing to assume the cost of maintaining these facilities after the Olympics, it was cheaper for ACOG to build ephemeral venues that only give the appearance of permanence.
The financial legacy of the Games is its most complex and elusive to pin down. The latest estimate of the Olympics’ impact on the Georgian economy amounts to $5.1 billion between 1990 and 1996, with most of that accruing in the Atlanta area, as well as some 80,000 jobs. The $5.1-billion figure includes everything from ACOG’s expenditures to those of the various governmental agencies to the estimated $900 a day that the average family of four will spend to attend the Games. Where that money will go and how much of it will affect the run of the mill Atlantan is unclear. Certain segments stand to benefit, and already have benefited, more than others. The construction industry, for example, has received an enormous boost from Olympic-related building, although its extensive use of labor pools limits its positive impact on construction unions. In addition, the Olympic construction boom has dramatically raised the price of materials in the metro area, which have been passed on to the consumer in a multitude of ways. This “invisible add-on,” however, is nothing compared to the anticipated rise in the cost of living, if restaurateurs and other retailers jack up their prices to fleece the Olympic hordes, as is widely expected. Property owners in or near the Olympic Ring stand to profit considerably during the Games from Olympic-related rentals, but that picture is nowhere near as rosy in the post-Olympic future, as millions of square feet of office and retail space will be dumped back on the market.
Despite the billions coursing through the local economy, “the questions” still remain. That is, will ACOG break even, and if it does not, will taxpayers be stuck with the tab? ACOG leaders have been insistently answering “Yes” to the first question, and emphatically “No!” to the second. Public concern deepened in February 1995, when ACOG announced it was delaying its final financial report until the fall. When the forecast was released in late October, ACOG chief operating officer A.D. Frazier pronounced it was “just about bulletproof.” That is, ACOG was assured of no worse a fate than breaking even. However, in early November 1995 this assertion was contested by the normally complacent watchdogs at MAOGA (Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority), whose accountants noted that ACOG’s revenue projections were on the high side of ambitious, and could easily be penetrated by the armor-piercing rounds of economic reality. Given the controversy that has surrounded the issue from the start, however, it is extremely unlikely that taxpayers will be directly responsible for bailing out ACOG if the worst-case scenario does indeed occur. That dubious honor falls to NationsBank, which extended an Olympian line of credit to Payne and Company. Still, if the city and ACOG are unable to come to agreement about the latter’s reimbursement of the former for municipal services necessitated by the Games, such as police overtime, sanitation, etc. (as is possible given their intense disagreements over the city’s marketing program), Atlanta’s already overburdened taxpayers will ultimately be the ones to foot that particular bill.
ACOG has been reluctant to conclude an agreement on paying for city services, arguing that the tax windfall the city stands to reap more than offsets the cost of what the city will spend. Indeed, holding to the line that it has maintained since 1990, ACOG argues that it is really doing the city and people of Atlanta an enormous favor by staging the Olympics, indeed, that the Olympics are the best thing that ever happened in, and to, Atlanta. Although they like to emphasize the material aspects of the Olympic legacy, Billy Payne and A.D. Frazier are quick to emphasize that enhanced “image, prestige, and pride are the real residuals.” Payne even went as far as claiming that the Olympics will establish Atlanta “as one of the top cities in the world; right up there with the Parises, and the Tokyos, and the New Yorks, and the Moscows, and the like. We’re in for a quantum leap in terms of image and reputation.” Many other non-ACOG business leaders agree that the unprecedented publicity and media attention will inevitably result in increased tourism, investment, and business growth, especially from abroad. While it is by no means inevitable, such a scenario seems likely though if current development trends are any indication, much of the new investment and activity will take place out on the peripheries in Gwinnett, Cobb, north Fulton, and Buckhead rather than in the urban core. In addition, Payne and Co. seem to truly believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Approximately 15,000 journalists will be descending upon Atlanta in the summer of 1996, an unspecified percentage of whom will have the express purpose not of covering the Games, but of demonstrating how Atlanta is not really what it claims to be.
The aspect of the Olympic legacy that has received the least amount of public attention is easily among the most important. A crucial component of Atlanta’s success over the past two decades has been the development of a biracial civic-business partnership, which reached its apogee in the mayoralty of Andrew Young. The bestowal of the Olympics coincided with several independent developments that deconstructed the fabled coalition. The re-election of Maynard Jackson in November 1989, and his succession by a protege elected without either strong ties to the African-American grass-roots or the support of the business community, coupled with the intensifying perception of the city council as bloated and corrupt, divided and demeaned the public sector. Meanwhile, the absorption of major local corporate citizens by larger national concerns, and the siphoning away of the private sector’s sunk investment in the core to the new downtowns of the periphery increasingly fragmented “the” business community. Nonetheless, enough fragments of the latter have endured to constitute what former city councilman Jabari Simama and fellow investigative reporters from Atlanta’s free weekly Creative Loafing have called a “shadow government.” Though it is an ephemeral, nominally private corporation, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games evolved as an organizational entity that drew heavily on personnel used to working with each other from the heyday of the 1980’s public private partnership. How these persons will be reintegrated into the governing coalition that emerges after 1996 remains to be seen, but the intense hostility that has emerged between city hall and ACOG in the course of the preparation does not bode well for an easy or early return to business as usual.
Indeed, if the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Centennial Olympic Park are any indication, we may well see the emergence of a new kind of urban regime in Atlanta, one in which the city is reduced to the status of junior player or partner, while the crucial decisions are made by a coalition of private business leaders and quasi-public state authorities. Just as decision-making has been privatized, or at the very least removed from public accountability, the park itself is exemplary of contemporary tendencies towards the privatization and spectacularization of public space. Sold to the people of Atlanta as a state-of-the-art open gathering place, the park, in its Olympic manifestation at least, is neither all that open nor public, nothing more than an ephemeral simulation of a public open space of an earlier age. The failure to address the problems of adjacent poor neighborhoods, public housing projects, and the homeless raises the prospect of the park becoming as empty and objectionable to the business community as the current “void” is, if not more so given the heightening of expectations. Then again, the lack of linkage between specific projects and the surrounding urban whole is a general failing of virtually all ongoing efforts at urban redevelopment in Atlanta and elsewhere.
But all of these consequences lie in the not-so-distant future, on the other side of the Olympics. As an all-too rainy winter gave way to an abbreviated spring and a premature onset of summer, the attention of most Atlantans was fixated on efforts to get the city ready to handle the expected two million visitors. From the fall of 1992, the banner of the Journal-Constitution bore a running countdown of the “days to go.” At key points around the city, digital clocks provided an even more precise accounting of the days. hours, minutes, and seconds until the Games begin. Within this frame, certain dates were imbued with an importance that seemingly owed more to numerology than public relations. With a hundred days to go and counting, local and national mediators alike were prompted to ask the highly-ritualized, but actually not-so-rhetorical question: “Will Atlanta be ready?” Despite ACOG’s and the city’s confident (and hardly surprising) assurances to the affirmative, the unfinished state of construction–not to mention the belated recognition of the true scale of the juggernaut to come–raised considerable doubts, even among the faithful. This most un-Atlanta-spirited anxiety provided an almost irresistibleirresistable [sic] motive force for endorsing whatever is necessary to get the city ready, regardless of the consequences. There was liter- ally no time for argument or serious rethinking of priorities. As in the case of their computer generated mascot, Whatizit?, Atlanta’s Olympic imagineers, faced with a product of dubious appeal, have focused their resources on a superficial makeover, leaving a complex and troubling set of problems to be “rediscovered” in 1997.
Charles Rutheiser is associate professor of anthropology at Georgia State University. This essay is excerpted from his book, Imagineering Atlanta; $18.95 paperback, from Verso Press, 180 Varick Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10014; or phone 1-800-233-4830.