Hotter than summer in the South, Olympic fever rages across Georgia as the state tries to lure the 1996 Games to Atlanta, attempting to make it the first U.S. city east of the Mississippi River to host the Olympics. From Atlanta to Savannah, boosters are hard at work, promoting this city and, by extension, the state and the region as the most attractive location among the six contenders for the Summer Games.
Atlanta is awash in banners, benefits and T-shirts, aimed at putting Georgia on the minds of the 89 members of the International Olympic Committee when they meet in Tokyo on Sept. 18 to make their decision. The city's efforts range from gathering signatures on "the world's biggest baseball" to the soothing, well-modulated message that travelers hear as they ride up the escalator at Atlanta's busy Hartsfield International Airport: "Welcome to Atlanta, America's choice for the 1996 Summer Olympics."
Nearly 300 miles away, in coastal Savannah, where yachting events would be held, banners fly, too. Billboards push the effort, as do Olympic T-shirts.
It was almost four years ago that the world--including some Georgians--snickered when Atlanta announced it wanted the Olympics. Then, in 1988, the city beat out 14 U.S. rivals for the right to represent this country in the competition for the Games. Still, Atlanta was not given much of a chance, especially considering that one of its competitors is Athens, Greece, which hosted the first modern-day Olympics in 1896 and is a sentimental favorite to repeat for the centennial.
But now, Atlanta seems like a marathoner who has run a controlled race, staying close to the leader, and is kicking to the finish. And around Georgia, at least, nobody is counting Atlanta out. Around the world, fewer and fewer people think--as they did initially--that Atlantic City, N.J., is the U.S. competitor.
In addition to Athens, cities competing against Atlanta for the Games are Toronto, Melbourne, Belgrade and Manchester.
Last Tuesday, about 200 business and civic leaders gathered at the downtown World Congress Center for an "Olympic Send-Off" for the city's 350-member lobbying delegation heading for Tokyo. Atlantans are unabashed boosters. Promoting the city is almost an out-of-body experience. Some people actually used the word spiritual to describe the city's Olympic effort. Al Swan, president of Bank South, called the city's bid "one of the most important things to ever happen to Atlanta."
And in one of several pep talks to the delegation, Raymond Riddle, president of First Atlanta Bank, said: "We're not sending you to Tokyo to get a bronze or a silver. We want you to bring back the gold."
Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Organizing Committee and a one-time defensive end for the University of Georgia, described the excitement that has driven him during the quest: "If you took the adrenaline flow five minutes before kickoff and kept it up for four years, it'd be similar. It's much more intense than I ever thought it would be."
The feverish quest for the Games could be explained as simply a reaction by a city that for so long has been ridiculed for professional teams that are so bad. Or by the city's desire to emulate Los Angeles' financial success with the 1984 Olympics. But Atlanta is also driven by the peculiar Southern need, ingrained since the Civil War ended, to prove to the world that it is as decent, fair and, well, normal as any place in America.
Atlanta feels even more keenly than the rest of the South the need to prove itself because it believes so strongly that its quality of life, economic vitality and social progressiveness are better than in any other place on Earth. Playing host to the 1988 Democratic Convention helped satisfy the city's need to display its assets, as did its recent successful bid to hold the 1994 Super Bowl. But none of that is enough.
"The Olympics would be a 'validator,' " said Barry King, a public relations consultant in nearby Covington, Ga. "Once you host one of those events, you've come of age."
Barbara Saunders, special promotions director at the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, said: "People are eager to have the new Georgia and the new Atlanta recognized for what we really are. We're very progressive. We're not slow and backward and behind the times. Events like this get that point across."
The Summer Games have been held in only two U.S. cities--Los Angeles, in 1932 and 1984; and St. Louis, in 1904. Some supporters of the Atlanta bid say it is time to bring the Games across the Mississippi River, into the land of Southern hospitality, birthplace of civil rights.
While emotion is a large part of the city's bid, it is certainly not the only part.
Asked why he wanted the Olympics here, Roger Bussell, who runs an automobile repair business, said: "Anything to give us more business," putting financial motivation in its simplest terms.
Officials estimate that the Games would provide 80,000 jobs and boost the state's economy by $3.5 billion over a six-year period. And the lasting tourism benefits from the publicity would be incalculable.
The effort to attract the Games has cost $7 million, officials said, virtually all of it raised by the business community.
Mayor Maynard Jackson, who plans to travel to Tokyo and address the International Olympic Committee--partly in English and partly in French--said the money has been put to good use already. The quest has had a "more profound, beneficial effect on Atlanta than if we had spent $50 million trying to advertise it," Jackson said.
Money is the root of the only visible objections to the Olympics here.
The Rev. Austin Ford, director of Emmaus House, which provides social assistance to poor children and senior citizens, said he has "serious misgivings" about the Games because even if they bring a profit, the money "will go into a few deep pockets. It'll be like so many other developments. A few people will benefit." Moreover, construction of needed facilities will displace poor people, he charged.
Backers of the Games have a consistent answer to Ford's assertions. "I say 80,000 jobs," Jackson declared. "Eighty thousand jobs. It's going to have the single biggest economic impact on Atlanta in its history. And we're going to see to it that that goes top to bottom. We're not going to forget about the folks who are most in need."
Ford's is a lonely voice amid the clamor for the Games. Some residents joke about renting out their homes to the hoards of visitors, and others threaten to lay off work to avoid hellish traffic, but they do not seriously object to the Games and have made no efforts to block them. In fact, Payne said more than 110,000 have volunteered their time in the event the city gets the Games.
The lack of organized opposition seems to be one of Atlanta's advantages in its battle for the Games. In Toronto, a group called Bread, Not Circuses Coalition has mounted a challenge. "That puts a bad taste in the committee's mouth," said Judith Webb, vice president for communications at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
Atlanta backers hail the city's transportation system, convention and hotel space, communications and its Eastern time zone, which they say is made for prime-time television. They also believe former Mayor Andrew Young is a huge asset because he developed many contacts around the world when he served as ambassador to the United Nations. Young will make a presentation to the IOC in Tokyo.
On the down side, crime is most often mentioned. In April, FBI statistics showed that, among cities with more than 300,000 residents, Atlanta was No. 1 in serious crimes last year. The crimes include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and automobile theft--but not drug offenses.
Officials here dismiss questions about crime, noting that Los Angeles got the Games despite its gang problems and that all major cities have crime. They also assert that most visitors are not affected by crime and that members of the IOC take a long view of such matters, realizing that statistics could change over the next six years.
While Atlanta's lack of an ocean could be a handicap in its bid, Savannah officials are quick to offer their port as the yachting venue. They acknowledge that holding these events there would spread out the Olympics but say that is good because it would expose visitors to yet another slice of Southern life.
"There's not that much antebellum charm to show off in Atlanta," said John Hicks, vice president for business development at the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce. "We are purveyors of antebellum charm." He cited the city's wealth of historic homes and network of squares where live-oak trees drip Spanish moss.
Competition for the Games is, itself, like a game. Throughout the contest, cities have conditioned themselves, sprucing up physically for visiting IOC members. Like many athletes, city supporters talk about "momentum," and they play "mind games," sometimes publicly downgrading their own chances, other times proclaiming victory.
Several months ago, local promoters were talking about a scenario that would bring the Games here and give Athens a symbolic victory by having it play host to an elaborate pre-Games ceremony marking the centennial of the Olympics.
A recent article in a Canadian newspaper ranked Atlanta fifth in a field of six--well behind Belgrade--while listing Toronto and Melbourne as tied for second, behind Athens.
As the decision approaches, Atlantans are declaring themselves to be among the top contenders, citing Athens and Melbourne as the other two. Officials here gleefully recount stories in which IOC members said they have rated Atlanta highest in its physical ability to hold the Games.
But the selection process is more complicated than that. It is one in which politics and emotion play a large part.
Emotion is no problem.
"I believe we're going to win this thing," Jackson thundered to the send-off crowd. "I believe it in my heart. We're confident, we're excited and we're prepared."
But what if?
"If we don't get it, we're still a winner," Jackson said, because of the publicity the city is gaining around the world.
In Savannah, Hicks said the champagne is already on ice, but if Atlanta loses, "We'll find something to celebrate. Savannahans are good for that."
And Khalil Johnson, general manager of the Georgia Dome, which will be completed in 1992, said: "It's not whether we get it; it's when--1996 or 2000 or 2004. It's just a matter of time."