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Atlanta Claims Its Place in Sun

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last guests have straggled home and Atlanta’s marathon coming-out bash--that’s the Olympics to y’all--finally has wound down. And can’t we just keep the lights down for a while until we work through this hangover?

Six years in the making, the Games of the XXVI Olympiad--once they finally got here--were everything Atlanta desired--and feared. The world turned its gaze on this brash young city that had been furiously turning backflips, trying to get everybody’s attention. And then, when folks started looking, the acrobat slipped.

Atlanta clearly wasn’t ready--not for the monster the Olympics have become. The amazing thing is, other than the news media and some International Olympic Committee members, people seemed to be having too much fun to notice.

For 17 days, downtown was turned into a rollicking, sweaty street party. It was tacky as all get out, with inflatable Gumbies, strolling Elvises and black and white Scarlett O’Hara clones posing for pictures.

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“It’s a little bit different than I expected,” said Richard King, who brought his wife and two children from Wilmington, N.C. “There’s a lot more of a carnival atmosphere.”

But his final verdict: “It’s wonderful. We’re having a great time.”

In fact, despite the bomb, despite the traffic snarls, despite a subway system bursting at the seams and other logistic and technological snafus, it was hard to find people on the street who didn’t consider the Atlanta Games a howling success.

Some Atlantans are embarrassed by all the hawkers and the commercial clutter. But the overwhelming feeling seems to be pride that the city pulled it off and that people from around the world found pleasure in a downtown that locals had all but abandoned.

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To be sure, the Atlanta that visitors saw was not the one residents are used to. The infusion of millions of pedestrian fun-seekers has a way of transforming a streetscape all by itself. To help things along, Olympic organizers--with the aid of business leaders and the state--built a new 21-acre park that is expected to become the centerpiece of a newly reconfigured downtown.

Two billion dollars in public and private funds were spent in getting the city ready. Entire blocks of buildings were rehabilitated and turned into hospitality sites, housing and exhibition and commercial space. More than 90 pieces of artwork--two-thirds of them permanent--have been installed throughout the city. And plans have been drawn to try to harness the energy of the Olympics to continue the transformation of downtown, now that the Games are over.

“The transformation that has taken place in the last 18 months was just amazing,” said Robert Foster, a retired administrator for the Centers for Disease Control. He and his wife Ethel, non-Games-goers who went downtown to bask in the glory--proclaimed the Games “an absolute success.”

“They said it couldn’t happen,” said Ethel, as a jubilant street party swirled around her in Centennial Olympic Park. “It’s incredible!”

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Like many locals, the Fosters bristled at criticism that their city had overextended itself, that it’s just a small town straining too hard to get into the big leagues. Ethel Foster accused the media of “whining” about transportation and technological glitches that affected journalists to a far greater extent than the public at large.

“Grin and bear it,” she said. “So your bus is late--so what?”

Said Robert Foster of the national and international journalists who have trashed his town, calling the Atlanta Games the most unorganized ever, “In my opinion, they came in with a bias. They were saying those Southern hicks can’t pull this thing off. When they couldn’t find anything to criticize, they manufactured something. To me they’re picking at nits.”

Asked last week for an assessment of the Games, A.D. Frazier, chief operating officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, acknowledged that the technological problems--which prevented journalists from getting timely and accurate information on events--were a disappointment.

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Organizers expected the masses of people to overwhelm transportation systems in the early going, he said, adding that adjustments were made in the early days that corrected the problems.

“It’s a trial by fire,” said Sharon Wallace, a spokeswoman for the organizing committee. “You can get your plans in place, your people in place, but until you get in a real-time situation, you don’t know what will happen.”

Said Frazier: “In the main, I think things have gone remarkable well.”

He called the sea of humanity that flooded downtown streets “breathtaking.”

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And the opinion in the streets seemed to be overwhelmingly favorable.

“Everybody I have talked to has enjoyed the Olympics,” said Susan Moss, who works at Macy’s downtown. “It has been fun. It is going to be a letdown when this is over.”

Bank customer service representative Jean Miller said many people from the suburbs who never come into the city have gotten on the city’s rapid rail system and traveled into town for the festivities.

“Some people will say they were glad to have the Olympics but glad they are gone,” she said. “Almost everybody is going to go through an adjustment.”

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International Boulevard downtown was transformed into the city’s version of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. That was pretty remarkable in itself. Aside from one block that houses several restaurants, International is a charmless avenue lined with parking lots, budget hotels and the blank street-level faces of skyscrapers.

But the street, which leads to the main entrance of Centennial Olympic Park, was thronged day and night with people--street musicians, vendors, mimes, and tens of thousands of others just looking for a good time.

“I’m so very glad that the Olympics came here,” said Martha Knighton, a fashion model who brought three of her grandchildren in from the suburbs Saturday to buy souvenirs. “I think Atlanta people have learned a lot. Some people in Atlanta have never been out of Atlanta. The Olympics have given them an opportunity to explore other cultures without having to leave Peachtree Street.”

Critics lambasted the gaudy, commercialized atmosphere. Parking lots all over downtown were turned into tourist attractions with stages and air-conditioned tents acting as night clubs. Corporate sponsors set up signs and exhibits everywhere. Hawkers abounded.

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But King, the visitor from North Carolina, said all of the vendors performed a needed service, supplying food and souvenirs to masses of people hungry for both.

“It takes a lot of hot dogs to feed this many people,” he said.

A public works employee in Wilmington, he said he is impressed with the $500 million in new sports facilities and the park that Atlantans will get to enjoy after the Games are over. “I’m envious,” he said.

Outside of the unavoidably crowded subways, most people seemed to view the fatal July 27 pipe bomb explosion as the only blemish on the Games.

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“It makes me mad that some idiot had to do this,” Moss said. “The South wanted to demonstrate that it is a nice area of the country, and the bomb put a damper on this. But, the bomb didn’t stop the people. It helped some find other areas of the city outside the park, like [the entertainment districts of] Buckhead and Underground.”

Revelers at the House of Blues, a temporary nightclub set up in an abandoned church on the edge of the park, literally partied through the bomb. James Brown and his band were performing in a tent at the club when the bomb exploded. The music was so loud that nobody heard it.

Brown kept singing until authorities came to evacuate. The nightclub reopened with a packed, celebrity-studded crowd two nights later.

On Friday, former mayor Andrew Young, co-chairman of ACOG, was among the 1,000 guests who attended the funeral of Alice Hawthorne, the 44-year-old Albany (Ga.) woman who was killed by shrapnel. But Friday night he was at the House of Blues, dancing in the balcony and singing along with Al Green.

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As the Games wound down, the crowds downtown at night seemed to get larger, despite the dozens of bomb threats that kept authorities jumping.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, (D.-Ga.), who, with Young, were leaders in the civil rights movement, compared the city’s spirit to the defiance and determination that animated activists in the 1960s.

He said the people filling Centennial Olympic Park and the city streets were performing “a massive act of nonviolence” like the demonstrations he participated in with the Rev. Martin Luther King.

“In the ‘60s, when there were beatings or when a church was bombed, we would sing a song with the words, ‘Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Us Around,’ ” he said. “That’s what people here were saying with their bodies.”

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By the end of the Games, 9 million tickets had been sold. Many of them were bought after the bomb exploded. More tickets were sold here than in Los Angeles and Barcelona combined when the Games were held in those cities. The number of countries participating, athletes competing and fans attending the games all set records.

“I don’t think anybody ever knows just how big a project staging the Olympic Games is,” said Bob Brennan, a spokesman for ACOG. “We had a comprehensive knowledge of what we had to do, but it is the biggest undertaking that has ever been accomplished outside of a war in this country. . . . We have said that many times: It’s the biggest peacetime event in the history of the United States. That is not just hyperbole. . . . It is the largest of the Games ever held, by any measure, anywhere.”

Brennan said he found it particularly significant that this was achieved in a relatively small and young Southern city.

“The emergence of our city to play on a stage with the great cities of the world like Paris and Rome and London and Mexico City and Stockholm . . . is a very heady role to play. And we are playing that role all by ourselves.”

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Recounting the many challenges--among them the bombing but including other problems related to the vast size of the undertaking--Brennan acknowledged, “We did not know in the beginning the issues we would face.

“Certainly we’ve had problems. We’ve had difficulties to overcome. I think we’ve [overcome them]. . . . It is for the public to evaluate whether or not the Games have been a success. So far, their evaluation has been a favorable one.”

Times staff researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report.


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