Cherishing Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics legacy before it has all disappeared

By Maria Saporta

It takes 50 years for a structure to be eligible to get designated as an historic building.

At this rate we will have little to nothing left to designate to memorialize our Olympic history.

Before - The area as it was before Centennial Olympic Park (Photo courtesy of AECOM)

Before – The area as it was before Centennial Olympic Park (Photo courtesy of AECOM)

That point really hit home last week when Atlanta welcomed planners from around the country and the world at the American Planning Association convention.

A panel of people who had worked and observed Atlanta’s Olympics effort (Randy Roark – Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta; Tina Arbes – Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games; Sian Llewellyn – Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority; and yours truly) spoke of the legacy that remains.

Without a doubt, Centennial Olympic Park – which Llewellyn described as “an afterthought” – is Atlanta’s crowning Olympic jewel. The park has done more to transform downtown than any initiative in the past 30 years.

After - Centennial Olympic Park as it looks today (AECOM)

After – Centennial Olympic Park as it looks today (AECOM)

When Atlanta’s leaders returned from the spectacular Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, they realized the city was in dire need of a public gathering place in the heart of downtown. So a bunch of surface parking lot and dilapidated one-story buildings were magically replaced with a well-designed and well-maintained urban park.

But beyond Centennial Olympic Park with its five Olympic rings fountain and the natatorium at Georgia Tech, Atlanta seems determined to tear down nearly every major Olympics venue around town, and it hasn’t even been 20 years since we’ve hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

As someone who loved almost all of Atlanta’s Olympic experience, I find it sad how quickly we seem to be erasing the Olympics from our city’s memory.

In 2017, after the new Atlanta Falcons stadium opens, the Georgia Dome will be demolished. The Georgia Dome was the prime spot for several Olympic sports – primarily gymnastics.

Atlanta's Olympic Stadium in 1996 with the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the background (AECOM)

Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium in 1996 with the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the background (AECOM)

But perhaps the biggest void will be when Turner Field is removed from the city’s skyline. The baseball stadium was the Olympics $250 million gift to Atlanta.

The Olympic Stadium – where the opening and closing ceremonies were held and where all the track and field events were held – actually was designed to be a baseball stadium that would serve a temporary life as an Olympic stadium.

The Atlanta Braves, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County would get a brand new stadium without having to pay for it. The solution actually was a point of pride for Atlanta because we did not waste many precious dollars on wasteful Olympic venues that had no afterlife.

Because our Olympics were a privately-backed venture with no public-funding guarantees, every effort was made to make the most of every dollar.

It seems almost surreal now that this Olympics gift to Atlanta is likely to be discarded as the Atlanta Braves have decided to move to Cobb County and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has let it be known that Turner Field will be demolished when the Braves vacate the stadium — a move now set for the end of the 2016 season.

Turner Field as it is today (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Turner Field as it is today (Photo by Maria Saporta)

So what are we left with?

That’s where Atlanta’s mixed emotions towards the Olympics begin to surface. Because it was so much of a private venture, there was a lack of public buy-in on so many of the key decisions related to the Games and how they impacted the city.

I remember early on when Atlanta was competing for the Centennial Games against several cities around the world, including Athens, Greece and Toronto, Canada.

Civic leader Joe Martin questioned whether the city would be better served to have the Olympic Village located downtown next to Georgia State University and Underground Atlanta rather than the Georgia Tech campus. Atlanta’s plan called for the Olympic Village to become GSU dorms once the Olympics were gone.

Atlanta's Olympic caldron with the five Olympic rings as they stand today (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Atlanta’s Olympic cauldron with the five Olympic rings as they stand today (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Martin, and others who wanted more public involvement of Atlanta’s Olympic plans, were told that one of our main selling points were how united we were as a city compared to the vocal opposition underway in Toronto.

“Let’s win the bid first, and then we can talk about the plans,” they were told.

Atlanta's bid logo

Atlanta’s bid logo

Well Atlanta won the bid, and then those very people were told that those decisions — such as moving the Olympic Village downtown — could not be changed because they were now officially a part of our agreement with the International Olympic Committee.

The lack of community consensus also was apparent in selecting the Centennial logo (the beloved five As logo used in the bid was replaced with a more corporate look); the cauldron to hold the Olympic flame resembled a McDonalds container for French fries; and perhaps most embarrassingly of all, our mascot – “What is it” or “Izzy” – lived down to its name.

If we wanted to show class and charm, we failed. During the

Games, we were not well served by an Olympics organization that placed the international press last on the list of people who needed to be catered to. So it was no surprise that Atlanta received bad press in the early days of the Games.

Atlanta's Olympics logo

Atlanta’s Olympics logo

The tragic bombing in Centennial Olympic Park cast a sadness over the Games. But when the park reopened several days later, it was one of the most uplifting moments of a city and an international community coming together for the forces of good winning over the forces of evil.

Atlanta’s Olympic Games had so many high points. It had more spectators than any Olympics before or since. And I believe it had more volunteers than any before or since.

Although there were public funds spent to beautify the city and to provide security, the actual putting on of the Games was privately-financed – and it was a break-even $1.7 billion adventure. By comparison, the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi cost $50 billion, the most expensive ever.

So as we approach the 20th anniversary of our Olympics, let’s appreciate all the good qualities the Games brought to Atlanta, and let’s remember the lessons we learned of how we could have done better when we were on the world’s center stage.

Izzy - What more can I say

Izzy – What more can I say

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

15 replies
  1. BillB says:

    Well said, Maria.  In the summer of 1996 in lieu of a regular vacation I took my children to a number of events.  I myself attended 16 events, including the Womens’ Gynastics Team Final which has to be one of the greatest sporting events I have ever witnessed, and I was able to do so accompanied by my 11 year old daughter which made it even more special.
    So many people I knew couldn’t wait to get out of town when the Olympics came.  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and still believe it is the greatest single event that has ever happened in Atlanta.
    Bill B.Report

  2. Karen S says:

    Last month my husband and I visited Barcelona.  We were amazed by the Olympic complex and museum – all of it intact since 1992.   Brought it home very kinesthetically that Atlanta, with the Olympics four years after Barcelona, had little left of that great event.Report

  3. EdPrice1 says:

    The Olympic Cauldron already looks lost and out of place after being moved slightly north. How will it appear after the stadium is gone? I expect it to end up in a museum. 🙁
    Turner Field was a great, visible legacy, but the City of Atlanta unfortunately has no real use for a baseball stadium with no baseball team…
    At least Georgia Tech is being good stewards of the facilities they were given.Report

  4. Jim Stanton says:

    How about moving the Olympic Cauldron to Centennial Park? This would give it a meaningful place in an area already themed with the Olympics in mind. C’mon Atlanta, you got this.Report

  5. James R. Oxendine says:

    The 1996 Centennial Olympic Games placed the city of Atlanta, the metro region and ,to a lesser degree ,the state of Georgia in a rare status in the global marketplace , one that for some of the reasons stated in the article, has not been fully capitalized upon to the detriment of all of us , especially the citizens of Atlanta.
    However, there are still opportunities to build on the legacy going forward as the latest development cycle seems to include some of the former Olympic venues. The key for this future is as was so aptly described in the article, substantive public involvement.
    Several physical projects come to mind: placing an Olympic museum -a branch of the very good one at The Atlanta History Center-  near Centennial Olympic Park as part of its planned renovation; placing more signs and wayfaring information, including statues of some of the key players in the Olympic movement who perhaps did not get the acclaim of an Andy Young or Billy Payne, along Centennial Olympic Blvd; and organizing a city wide celebration commemorative week long celebration for the 20th anniversary in 2016.
    The glass is half full at this point but thanks to articles like this, we have an opportunity to the fulfill Atlanta’s Olympic legacy to the fullest.Report

  6. Chip Epsten says:

    The stadium could be repurposed – not necessarily as a sports venue. Assuming the structure would support interior construction, turn Tech or GA State architecture and urban studies students loose on it, and you’ll get some pretty interesting ideas. Atlanta should make another attempt at dreaming big.Report

  7. PriscillaPadron says:

    Maria really speaks my mind. What more is there to say, except that it was a magic time in spite of some of the difficulties, and we need to venerate it. We can start by re-purposing the Braves/Olympic stadium, where I spent hours watching track and field. C’mon Mayor Reed, have some respect for our legacy as an Olympic City.Report

  8. mnst says:

    So much sad and cynical commentary. What about the stunning plan GSU unveiled this week to redevelop the site as something better than Turner Field ever was? It doesn’t have to remain Turner Field or the home of the Braves to honor Atlanta’s Olympic legacy, and having it be home to student athletes instead of overpaid baseball players seems very fitting with the Olympic spirit.Report

  9. EdPrice1 says:

    This article, and most or all of these comments were written before the GSU announcement. It does provide a glimmer of hope. If the City doesn’t take the highest bid for the land.Report

  10. Guest says:

    Check out what happened to the rowing/sprint canoe & kayak venue in Gainesville/Lake Lanier… it is the living legacy of the 1996 Olympic Games. Before the games it was a nice park on the shores of Lake Lanier, after the games it continued to function as a center for the two Olympic sports showcased there. Thousands of children and adults have learned to row and canoe/kayak and dragon boat. The two clubs formed during the Olympic build-out: Lanier Canoe & Kayak Club (LCKC) and Lake Lanier Rowing Club are celebrating twenty year anniversaries this year! LCKC sent its first homegrown athlete-Tim Hornsby- to the 2012 London Games. So the legacy lives on where people were visionary enough to say “let’s take advantage of this opportunity and build something more…” Thank you Billy Payne.Report


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