Atlanta’s Olympic legacy does live on – in bricks, mortar as well as our souls

By Guest Columnist CHARLIE BATTLE, an attorney who was one of the original nine people who helped Atlanta win the Olympic bid by building friendships with members of the International Olympic Committee

In a recent column, Maria Saporta seemed to be “cherishing” the memories of hosting the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 while urging the City to learn from its experiences in organizing this historic event.

While I applaud and support these sentiments and certainly respect Maria’s insights and opinions, I must admit that I was disappointed and even somewhat dismayed by the negative, almost petulant, tone of portions of her column, and the lack of recognition of the many long-term and permanent legacies of the Atlanta Olympic Games.

I regret that I did not attend the panel discussion about Atlanta’s Olympic legacy which took place during the recent meeting of the American Planning Association in Atlanta and which seemed to provide the foundation for Maria’s column.

Charlie Battler

Charlie Battler

I will say, however, that extensive discussions with Leon Eplan and Michael Dobbins, who each served as Commissioner of Planning for the City of Atlanta during the lead-up and aftermath of the 1996 Games, have confirmed that the legacy of these Games, both tangible and intangible, is comprehensive, positive and enduring, and that organizing the Games provided the catalyst for the City of Atlanta to significantly transform its urban core and surrounding areas by accomplishing in just a few short years what might normally take decades.

While we all feel a twinge of sadness at the thought of the Atlanta Braves abandoning Turner Field, we should all celebrate the fact that we were able to utilize this facility, built at no cost to the City or its taxpayers, for 20 years and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some future use could emerge over the coming years.

Our Olympic bid was really never about building facilities – we were fortunate to have much already in place. It was always about bringing this meaningful event to our City, sharing our City and its people with the world, and unifying our community in a joyous celebration of excellence and the Olympic ideals.

Given the massive governmental expenditures and many “white elephants” still standing virtually unused in so many recent Olympic host cities, we should celebrate the facilities that we created – Turner Field, the Georgia Tech Student Activity Center, the sports facilities at Atlanta University Center, the Lake Lanier rowing and canoeing course, just to name a few – and be grateful for the successful use of these facilities for however many years they may last.

While Atlanta is certainly not famous for preservation, I really cannot imagine that we will “have little to nothing left” to memorialize our Olympic history.

As Maria stated, Centennial Olympic Park is truly Atlanta’s crowning Olympic jewel and has done more to transform downtown Atlanta than any initiative in the past 30 years. I am not sure if describing the Park as an “afterthought” was meant to be condescending or congratulatory, but I can say what a glorious afterthought it was and continues to be – a landmark gathering place and catalyst for billions of dollars of investment as a thriving business, residential and tourism epicenter.

Given the ever-increasing size and magnitude of the Olympic Games, the tight timeframe leading up to the Games and the fact that the political and business leadership of the City had no real urban development plan in place when Atlanta was selected to host the Games, the transformative impact which the Games had on the City and its infrastructure continues to be a remarkable accomplishment.

Mayor Maynard Jackson boldly articulated the goal of climbing the “twin peaks of Mt. Olympus” – organizing a successful Olympic Games while also using the event as a catalyst for revitalizing downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games focused on funding and organizing the Games, the Committee for Olympic Development in Atlanta focused on transforming the City, and hosting the Olympic Games provided the political will, the unifying force, the stated goals and the urgency of a deadline to get the job done. With no committed resources and a very short timeline, it continues to be remarkable just what was accomplished.

Significant Olympic legacies from this effort include the following:

  • In addition to Centennial Olympic Park, Freedom Park and significant improvements to Woodruff Park and other small City parks;
  • The construction of major residential dormitory units as part of the Olympic Village at Georgia Tech which catalyzed Georgia State University’s transformation from a commuter college to a residential university and fueled the growth of Georgia Tech’s residential population;
  • The redevelopment of a dilapidated, downtrodden and crime ridden Techwood Homes into Centennial Place, a mixed-income community, which became a model for similar public housing projects in Atlanta and around the country;
  • The implementation by the Committee for Olympic Development in Atlanta of a $75 million parks, streetscapes and neighborhood beautification and revitalization program that significantly enhanced the livability of Downtown and surrounding areas;
  • $400 million in improvements to Hartsfield Jackson International Airport – dramatically expanding its international capacity;
  • The passage of a $150 million bond issue for infrastructure improvements after two previous passage attempts had failed;
  • Installation of an advanced fiber optic cable system and digital communication trunk that has enabled Atlanta to be a significant hub of technological research, development and innovation.

Almost 20 years later, Atlanta is still being transformed by an Olympic legacy that changed the face of downtown, strengthened its reputation as a hub of global commerce, cemented its position of one of the premier sport cities in the world, reversed the population trend from outbound to inbound, and provided its citizens with wonderful memories of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Focusing on Atlanta’s Olympic legacy represents both a mirror to the past and the opportunity for a window into the future.

I agree with Maria that, when we reflect on this Olympic legacy, we need to build on its foundation and accomplishments by harnessing the same vision, passion, inspiration, commitment, cooperation and can-do attitude to move forward aggressively and competently with revitalization projects like the Atlanta Beltline, Ft. McPherson, the Falcons stadium, the Turner Field area, Underground Atlanta and the Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal, just to name a few.

The famous architect and planner, Daniel Burnham, once said “make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

Many Atlantans still bask in the afterglow of the pride and enthusiasm of hosting the Olympic Games, and we can only hope that we can once again “make big plans” and work together to solve some of our problems with the same success we had when we were able to climb the twin peaks of Mt. Olympus.

7 replies
  1. scfranklin says:

    Cheers to Charlie Battle for reminding us of the magic we felt as the hosts of the Centennial Olympic Games. The legacy is even more than he mentioned as the first ever Olympic programs were implemented including Clark Atlanta University broadcast training program certified hundreds of local college students for entry level positions in sports broadcasting; the minority and female business program, better known as the Equal Economic Opportunity Program, provided hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars (45% for the Olympic Stadium) in business opportunity unmatched in Olympic history; Spelman College hosted the first ever Women in the Olympics exhibit and program and the Neighborhood Job Training Program opened the doors to “on the job training” and entry into the construction industry to hundreds of unemployed and underemployed city residents at prevailing wage rates well above minimum wage.
    Fortunately, all of this and more is documented in the International Olympic Committee annuals and the Atlanta History Center Olympic archives and exhibits. Atlanta did it self proud as the host of the prestigious Centennial Games.Report

  2. mnst says:

    Very well said! The Braves don’t control Atlanta’s Olympic legacy, and I can’t help but see signs of the ’96 games everywhere I look across downtown. I wish this publication took a less cynical stance with regard to the challenges facing Atlanta, but I applaud the decision to publish this counterpoint to last week’s article.Report

  3. Guest says:

    Notice that nobody under 50 is arguing about Atlanta’s Olympic legacy.  Mostly because few of us were here in ’96 and most of us couldn’t care less. The “Olympic Legacy” conversation always sounds a lot like the guy in the bar who’s still talking about winning some high school football game 20 years ago.  
    Fortunately there is a new energy in this town that is young, diverse, and merit-based.  That energy is advancing projects like the Beltline, not rehashing past (questionable) glories.  It’s fun to hear stories from friends who got to see the losers’ bracket final in Modern Pentathlon when they were 14, but on behalf of the 3 million of us who have arrived in the last 20 years – what’s next Atlanta?  Or is that all you’ve got?Report

  4. woosnews says:

    I share Maria Saporta’s near nostalgic view of the legacy of the 1996
    Olympics in Atlanta, and her true appreciation of how the elements and
    architecture for the Centennial Games
    were brought together.  What’s disconcerting is how those Olympic
    structures that still serve our city so well are now slated for
    destruction – most notably, the Georgia Dome. 
    The Dome is our state’s premiere public stadium, not just for football
    and soccer, but for concerts, revivals, graduations, and a host of other
    high profile ceremonies and competitions. Best of all, the Georgia Dome
    belongs to the people of Georgia. The largest indoor sporting facility
    in the North America should continue to stand as a wonderful example of
    how Atlanta thrives when people in our city and state work together to
    do great things.
    Maybe a lot of people in Atlanta don’t realize the Georgia Dome is
    slated to be demolished as part of the proposal for the new
    publicly-subsidized Falcons stadium. At a time when Atlanta is hoping to
    raise a billion dollars for direly needed basic infrastructure
    improvements, we are talking about paying to tear down our invaluable,
    premier, publicly owned stadium that’s serving us so well, not just with
    proceeds from events, but also boosting up our tourism and
    entertainment revenues with huge events right downtown. A Forbes article
    on the Final Four Basketball games here last year noted how one of the
    most attractive things about Atlanta to visitors is how a fan can easily
    walk from an event at the Dome to Centennial Park to downtown hotels
    and more. We have a great set-up in our city, working well for us,
    thanks in large part, to the people who put together Atlanta as a city
    that was ready to host the 1996 Olympics.
    I don’t know all the details of the new Falcons stadium proposal, but it
    is my understanding that Atlanta’s entire hotel / motel sales tax for
    the next 30 years – close to $1.2 billion of city revenues – will go
    towards funding the construction and operations of that private-public
    venture. Revenues from the new stadium events will go to the Falcons
    investors. Atlanta will lose all the revenue we now get from the Georgia
    Dome, then go into debt to subsidize the new Falcons facility – and
    even throw in a $17-million-state-funded parking deck in the heart of
    our city to further sweeten the deal for them. Does this make sense to
    This past weekend, I visited the monument to Georgia’s veterans in the
    park between the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center, and
    couldn’t help but wonder, will this park and tribute to our veterans,
    etched into a granite obelisk, also be razed by the new plans? I visited
    the memorial after going to an open house up Northside Drive, at the
    Historic Friendship Baptist Church,  which is also scheduled to be
    demolished by our current city planners to clear a path for the
    As Atlanta’s Olympic Structures are a testament to the men and women who
    worked so well together to make the 1996 Games a catalyst for a
    positive change in our city, Friendship is a testament to the men and
    women who made our city a light of freedom for the world.  This historic
    sanctuary still stands, viable and beautiful, as part of the oldest
    black Baptist church in town, the mother church to nine other successful
    congregations in and around Atlanta,. The church also served as the
    Atlanta home for Spelman College, Atlanta University, and Morehouse.
    Atlanta’s late Mayor Maynard Jackson – the first African-American mayor
    of any large Southern U.S. city, who helped to bring the Olympic Games
    to Atlanta and move our city forward in so many other great ways, also
    shares a history with Friendship. Jackson first came to Atlanta as a
    child, when his father was called to be pastor at the church and
    remained a lifelong member at Friendship Church, which is now on the
    National Registry of Historic Places.
    According to a posting on the GWCC website – Demolition of Historic
    Friendship Baptist Church is scheduled to start 6/2/14.  Next week.
    Even some of the Atlanta City Council members who voted for this
    proposed Falcons stadium deal are expressing second thoughts about it,
    now that these destructive plans are underway. One council member said
    he never expected the Friendship congregation would agree to sell, and
    he thought the Falcons would have then opted for the alternative site in
    north Atlanta, which would have been better for the city.  You can read
    a summary of the councilman’s comments and the views of others who
    spoke at the May 5 Hearing on the Proposed Demolition of Friendship,
    posted on the Westside Community Alliance’s website.
    Mayor Kasim Reed only called out one council member by name as a stadium
    supporter at the symbolic groundbreaking of the Falcons stadium, held
    on the lawn in front of the Georgia Dome May 19. While a large portion
    of the lawn was cordoned off and secured for the event, the actual
    attendance for the ceremonial display looked almost paltry. You can view
    a short video of the mayor’s speech at the groundbreaking on Youtube,
    We may never know how much or how little real public support there is
    for this proposed new stadium deal, since the public was never allowed
    to vote on it. But we do know, there are plenty of sell-out capacity
    crowds still coming to the Georgia Dome, which seats more than 70,000.
    And for now, Atlanta’s Historic Friendship Baptist Church still stands
    as testament to our ancestors’ successful fight for civil rights in this
    city, and in this world. Friendship could easily be saved and serve
    this city as a cultural center, a concert hall, and a world destination
    for the study of civil rights history. Friendship and the Georgia Dome
    -these iconic meeting halls, each outstanding in their era, are still
    viable reminders to all of us of what we can do in this city with good
    people working together for the benefit of all of us.
    If we sound sad and nostalgic when talking about the lasting legacy of
    the Olympic Games in Atlanta – please know, Mr. Battle, at least from my
    point of view, that feeling is a reflection on how much I appreciate
    the good work you and planners like the late Mayor Maynard Jackson did. 
    – and my hope that our city continues to thrive, that we preserve our
    parks and memorials to those who paved the way for us – and together, we
    build a truly great city in the century to come, with these valuable structures of our Olympic legacy, and our Friendship intact.Report


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