Olympian Test of Atlanta’s Mettle : Summer Games: The elation of being named host of 1996 event has been dampened by bickering, power struggles and protests over venue sites.


When this city learned last September that it had won the battle to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, joy showered over everybody, creating one huge, happy family.

But celebrations can’t last forever and, like many families, this one is discovering that tensions, rivalries, bickering and disputes are more a part of everyday life than are victory parades and champagne toasts.

Welcome to the morning after.

It promises to be a long one. So far, it has included a skirmish between the city and the local Olympic committee over control of the Games’ anticipated $1.2-billion bank account, the usual hassles over logo copyrights, an upscale neighborhood uprising that blocked construction of a tennis complex and an ongoing protest against building the main stadium in an impoverished neighborhood.


The stadium will be a $145-million, 85,000-seat facility, which will be converted to a 50,000-seat baseball park after the Olympics. It is to be built next to the old Atlanta-Fulton County stadium.

But not if Ethel Mathews has anything to say about it.

Mathews, a veteran community activist who usually wears a white floppy hat, peers over her eyeglasses and uses a walking cane to punctuate her fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, has mounted a spirited campaign against the stadium location, which is within sight of the gold-domed state Capitol in a downtrodden section near downtown.

The existing stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves, already has harmed the south-side neighborhoods known as Summerhill, Mechanicsville and Peoplestown, Mathews says, asserting that another one would kill them with noise, pollution, traffic jams and displacement of the old and the poor.

As president of the new group Atlanta Neighborhoods United for Fairness (A’NUFF), Mathews recently led a demonstration at the home of Olympic Committee President Billy Payne. Mathews and about a dozen others marched on Mayor Maynard Jackson’s City Hall suite Feb. 11, asserting that they have 1,000 signatures on a petition against the stadium site.

She vows to continue picketing at other places, including at the home of former Mayor Andrew Young, also an Olympic Committee official, to “raise the consciousness of the big business people downtown, the mayor, the power structure and the big rich men.”

In conversations, Mathews and several allies repeatedly called for “respect” from officials for the mostly black neighborhood, noting that when more affluent residents protested construction of the tennis venue in their north-side Blackburn Park neighborhood, Olympic officials sought another location.

“We have the same right to say no,” Mathews declared. “We’re asking them to respect us like they did the white folks.”

Why not just find another location for the stadium, which will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies?

“We think it is the best location,” said Bob Brennan, a spokesman for the Olympic Committee. “We don’t know of (another) piece of property that will fit” plans for placing most venues in a compact area.

Brennan and others who support the site assert that Mathews speaks for few residents and that the majority believe the stadium will help the neighborhoods. “We don’t have any reason to build it if we think it’s going to be bad for them,” Brennan said.

Nevertheless, several residents chatting from their front porches on a recent warm day seemed persuaded that the stadium would force them out.

“I think it’s wrong to tear down where people have scuffled and put a lot of money into a place,” said Pearl Wright, who rents a house for $420 a month. “It really hurts.”

As she spoke, a familiar ritual of the city played out half a block away: A policeman slammed a young man onto the hood of a police cruiser and handcuffed him, illustrating some of what social activists are trying to eliminate in Summerhill and other Atlanta inner-city neighborhoods.

Afflicted with searing rates of crime and poverty, many Atlantans await the Games--and the attention and money they will attract--with tremendous hope and expectation, seeing them as a way to solve social problems ranging from joblessness and poor housing to crumbling streets and dowdy areas of downtown.

Thus, the Summer Games represent a magnificent dream for Atlanta, the first city east of the Mississippi to host them--a dream that is testing the diplomatic skills of officials in the city’s power structure and energizing social activists who see the Olympics as an instrument of change.

But “the expectations that are attached to the Olympics are wildly out of proportion to what the Olympics actually can do” on a long-term basis, said William Boone, chairman of the political science department at Clark Atlanta University.

Boone and Mathews may believe that, but many others do not.

While Mathews battles to keep the stadium out, another organization, Summerhill Neighborhood Inc., is battling to keep it in, hoping it will improve the local quality of life.

Douglas Dean, president of the group, noted that studies are under way and will be the basis for a “partnership” among the neighborhoods, the city and the Olympic Committee to “totally revitalize” the area’s housing, health care, police services, parks and businesses.

Dean estimated that this could be done for $50 million to $100 million.

“That’s peanuts when you look at what this can be: the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to turn around a community,” he said. “This could be a national showpiece.” On the other hand, he said, the city should be ashamed to have hundreds of thousands of visitors see the area the way it is now.

Pride no doubt will be a driving force in whatever plan emerges for upgrading the neighborhoods, just as it was in acquiring the Games in the first place.

Atlanta, in putting on the Games, seeks validation as a world-class city in the eyes of the world. Olympic boosters are betting that the last thing Atlanta wants to do is have people see its seamiest side right next to the main Olympics stadium.

As conscientious as Atlanta is about presenting a tidy, united front, it has been unable to hide tensions between city and local Olympics officials.

Negotiations between the two sides were, for months, accorded the interest and rumor usually reserved for negotiations between warring nations. Many accounts portrayed the sessions as a struggle for control of the $500-million construction program and other facets of the Games’ plans.

After many meetings, Jackson and Payne, who led Atlanta’s effort to get the Games, announced an agreement last month: The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games Inc., headed by Payne and composed of 30 board members from sports, government, communities and labor, will prepare the city for the Games. The Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority, of which both Payne and Jackson are members, will have governmental oversight, including approval of construction contracts and proposed venue changes.

In Atlanta, public harmony has always been important, even during the bloody civil rights struggles decades ago, when the city boasted of being “too busy to hate.” So it was not surprising that, despite their reported differences, Jackson and Payne were the picture of harmony at a news conference announcing the agreement (which both call fair).

“We have come away from this as friends and as a city united,” Jackson said.

Brennan, the Olympic committee spokesman, acknowledged that the negotiations between “two very strong people,” both lawyers, were “hard.” But he said that, in the end, they were guided by the city’s historic “let’s sit down and work it out” attitude.

The Atlanta Games offer much more opportunity for both hope and dispute than did the 1984 Los Angeles Games because this city will require far more construction, officials say. The expected $500-million construction cost for venues and other facilities in Atlanta is five times the amount spent on construction for the Los Angeles Games.

The 1996 Olympics will be “the biggest event that ever happened to Atlanta since (William Tecumseh) Sherman,” predicted Leon Eplan, the city’s commissioner of planning and development.

The analogy is apt. Although the Union general burned the city, he also inspired--necessitated--its rebuilding after the Civil War.

Eplan predicts that donations will pour into the city for building projects amid a wave of civic pride.

“This city has an enormous sense of joy about itself,” he said. “Atlantans love to show their city off because they love it.”

Still, many here remain convinced that there will be no joy in Summerhill or in the city’s other downtrodden neighborhoods--at least no lasting joy.

Boone, the political scientist, predicted that after the construction jobs are gone, what will remain around the new stadium will be “a kind of no-person’s land. You’ll get people on the street saying, ‘Park your car in my back yard for $2,’ that kind of thing.”

Believing that, Mathews is pressing on. And if the stadium site is not moved, she declared firmly, her voice rising: “We can say we didn’t stand back and let anybody back us against the wall. We can say we did try.”