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Olympic Park Opens With a Big Splash

July 13, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ Inspired by the classic European plazas that dazzled visitors to the Barcelona Games in 1992, Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park has green pavement instead of grass and a collection of tent exhibits promoting corporate sponsors.

The temporary wire fence on its perimeter provides all the ambience of a construction site.

But don’t waste time sharing such complaints with 4-year-old Brandi Sampson, who soaked up _ literally _ the new park’s festive atmosphere Saturday by jumping into the centerpiece Olympic fountain for an opening day dousing.

The striking fountain, which spews water 20 feet high from five ground-level Olympic rings, was one of the main attractions for young and old as the $50 million park in downtown Atlanta was dedicated six days before the games.

A perfect, if messy, way to get relief from Atlanta’s notorious heat, crowds gathered for a chance to stand, about 100 at a time, in the middle of the fountain.

``It seems to be as much fun for the adults as the kids,″ said Eddie Sampson of Atlanta as his daughter tugged at his arm for another romp in the water.

Such unpretentious cheer created a pleasant debut for the park, which was not even part of Atlanta’s original plans for the Summer Games. It has turned out to be the most visible symbol of the city’s preparations.

Just a few blocks below Peachtree Street and across the street from CNN Center, the site was, until recently, a seedy section of warehouses, lots and a few small businesses where few conventioneers _ or local residents _ dared to tread.

The area was visible from the office balcony of Atlanta Olympics chief Billy Payne, who was bemoaning the city’s lack of gathering place for Olympic visitors such as the Placa d’Espanya that so impressed him in Barcelona. He wanted something comparable, so in late 1993 he proposed the park and challenged business, political and philanthropic leaders to come up with a way to pay for it.

``Some men dream things and ask, `Why?′ Billy Payne dreams things and asks, `Who can we get to pay for it?‴ quipped mayor Bill Campbell at the dedication.

Built on a fast track by the state, park construction has been responsible for massive traffic jams downtown. But few were thinking of that Saturday as the park’s opening did something remarkable: it filled downtown Atlanta _ where one usually can hear a pin drop on a weekend afternoon _ with hordes of people.

``This is what Atlanta needed. This was not a happy place to go to downtown,″ said Atlanta resident Lori Elwood. ``It’s about time.″

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games scheduled the park opening so that locals could enjoy it a few days before the Olympic crowds descend.

Though people came and went, the park held a steady crowd of about 20,000 much of the day. The crowd thinned considerably, however, after a midafternoon shower.

``It is possible to transform downtown,″ said Sherman Day, the top park official at ACOG.

Because corporate money was essential to make the park _ as well as the Atlanta Olympics itself _ a reality, much of the park is taken up with such attractions as Bud World, the Swatch Pavilion and the AT&T Global Olympic Village. To maintain crowd control during the games, the entire 21 acres is fenced.

There are but a few small patches of grass and trees. The landscape is dominated by green pavement walkways and paths of commemorative bricks engraved with names and messages from people who contributed $35 apiece to the project.

On Saturday, people lined up by the hundreds at kiosks where they could search computer screens for the location of bricks carved with the names of everyone from International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch to Elvis Presley to the Oberto family of Lexington, Ky.

After the games, the sponsor exhibits will be gone and the park will be converted into a more conventional urban park of grass, fountains and statues.

Such details were of less concern Saturday than the idea that Atlanta has a central place to congregate during its greatest event.

``Her grandmother talks about being at the premiere of `Gone With the Wind’ years ago,″ said Polly Warren of Atlanta, nodding at her 9-year-old daughter. ``Forty years from now I want her to be able to say I was at the opening of the Olympic Park.″

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