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‘Most Exceptional’ Atlanta Olympics still an undefined legacy

July 11, 1997

ATLANTA (AP) _ Billy Payne believes history will be kind to the 1996 Olympics, despite the broken-down computer systems, tawdry commercialism and confused bus drivers.

The man whose single-minded determination brought the Centennial Games to Atlanta can actually foresee a time when even the most derisive critics are forced to acknowledge: ``That was amazing what they did.″

Juan Antonio Samaranch has a different view. Not only did the president of the International Olympic Committee insist on calling Atlanta’s Games ``most exceptional″ instead of the ``best ever″ _ ensuring he’ll never be invited back for a Coke and Varsity chili dog _ he seems intent on keeping the memory of them as the ``Glitch Games.″ alive.

Samaranch advised organizers of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City a few months ago to make sure out-of-town bus drivers are adequately trained. ``If not, they get lost, like it happened in former games,″ he said.

Ouch.

The legacy of the Atlanta Olympics is likely to fall somewhere in between Payne’s rosy forecast and Samaranch’s extended gloom.

John Lucas, who has done extensive research on the history of the Olympic movement, points out that criticism is as much a part of the games as the marathon.

Berlin 1936 was probably the best organized games in history, Lucas said, but all those swastikas and goose-stepping soldiers made it a mighty uncomfortable place for most people.

Montreal 1976 _ a financial disaster. Moscow 1980 _ an American-led boycott. Los Angeles 1984 _ a Communist boycott. Seoul 1988 _ thousands of empty seats. Ditto for Barcelona 1992.

``If my students were listening to all this,″ said Lucas, a retired professor at Penn State University who taught a course on Olympic history, ``they would say, `Why don’t they just throw in the towel and not have the games anymore?′

``My answer would be, `May I talk in far greater length about what history shows are the good things?‴

Lucas attended the Atlanta Games and saw many positive things. Like the record number of athletes (10,705) who set more world records than at any previous Olympics _ and the female athletes in particular, moving a giant step closer to parity with the men.

The venues were impeccable. Every nation in the world attended. The crowds were huge. The oppressive Southern heat wasn’t as bad as feared. The television ratings were stunning.

On the other hand, the transportation system for IOC officials and the media was a mess, with under-trained drivers and shoddy buses. Technological breakdowns were reminiscent of a Third World country. Street vendors transformed downtown into a tacky flea market.

Most damning, Lucas said, was the lack of cooperation among Atlanta’s Olympic organizers, city government, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the IOC.

``If you have that, you’ll have a great Olympics, as they did in Barcelona and as they did in Seoul. They did not have that in Atlanta,″ he said.

Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, notes that surveys after the closing ceremony showed most Americans believed Atlanta did a good job. He remembers the hundreds of thousands of people who jammed downtown streets throughout those 2 1/2 weeks, and their refusal to succumb to terrorism after a pipe bomb killed one person and injured scores in Centennial Olympic Park.

``For the 5 1/2 million people who were here, and the billions on television, they really didn’t care if the press was having trouble getting to the Main Press Center,″ Payne said. ``They were rejoicing and celebrating and feeling for themselves the magic of the Olympic.″

Anita DeFrantz, an IOC member from Los Angeles, believes Payne is taking the easy way out when he points to the fans as proof that Atlanta’s Games were a rousing success.

``If you do right by the athletes and you do right by the press, you’ll do OK,″ said DeFrantz, who gives Atlanta good marks in the first category, a mediocre grade in the latter. ``Spectators have never had a bad time at the Olympic Games. You don’t really have to worry about the spectators.″

From the IOC’s point of view, most of Atlanta’s problems can be traced to the reliance on private funding, which kept the organizers scrambling for money right up to the July 19 opening ceremony in order to meet a $1.7 billion budget.

``Commercialism in and of itself is not an evil _ only when it becomes vulgar, bizarre and gross,″ Lucas said. ``That’s what happened in Atlanta.″

The IOC has made it clear it will never bring the Olympics to another city without assurances of significant public funding.

``We spent billions of dollars to make these games a wonderful experience, and it was,″ Payne said. ``The fact that we were able to do it with private financing is not a negative, it’s a positive.″

Nevertheless, the memory of Atlanta could be a negative when the next U.S. city bids for the Olympics, especially when powerful IOC officials such as vice president Richard Pound say Atlanta had a chance to show ``it was a world-class city, and it failed to do it.″

Already, the USOC has decided not to make a bid for the 2008 Games.

``I used to say that Atlanta got the games because of Los Angeles (in 1984),″ said DeFrantz, who lives in the city that showed that privately financed Olympics can be successful.

``Now we can ask the same question about American cities bidding in the future. The most recent experience in Atlanta, will that have an effect? Like any competition, it’s who you’re competing against.″

Payne said the task was enormous and won’t be fully appreciated until future cities present their Olympic vision. The IOC already is committed to reducing the number of athletes at the 2000 Sydney Games by more than 500 to get a handle on the rapid growth that swallowed up Atlanta.

With only a year to dwell on the triumphs and tragedies, successes and excesses, how does Atlanta’s Olympic legacy stack up against other cities? Lucas gives it a B-plus.

``The Atlanta Games were a great Olympic Games,″ Lucas said. ``But even greater in every dimension were Seoul and Barcelona, because they had better cooperation. Mr. Samaranch was brutally honest when he said Atlanta was a great Olympic Games, but not the greatest. He couldn’t have been more tactful.″

End adv weekend editions July 12-13

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