Advanced Search
Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections

Whatwuzit?: The 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics Reconsidered

Emory University
Published March 21, 2006


This gateway looks back at Atlanta's Olympic Games ten years after the 1996 Opening Ceremony. Many of the links featured have become internet historic sites, not updated since the Olympic flame was extinguished. They establish a lasting reminder of both how news organizations reported the Games and how the Games, as the first Olympics prominently featured on the worldwide web, have been digitally preserved. Featured sections examine the Atlanta Games and the Olympics' engagement with civic, regional and national identities. All illustrations on this gateway were created by Kerry Soper and are taken from the 1996 Southern Changes article, "The Disposable Olympics Meets the City of Hype," by Preston Quesenberry. They help to illustrate sentiments critical of the Games' impact on the Atlanta landscape by highlighting the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games' attempts to "clean up the city" for the Olympics and by the extensive commercialization of the Olympic movement.


Southern Changes Cover, Summer 1996
Cover of Southern Changes, Summer 1996.

If International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch's address to the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games is remembered at all, it is for his unwillingness to bestow Atlanta's Games with the honor of "the greatest in Olympic history" - that coveted rhetorical flourish lauding the host city's organizing efforts. Unbridled commercialism, poor and unreliable public transportation, a deadly terrorist attack on Centennial Olympic Park: such significant failures shaped Samaranch's verdict that these Olympic Games were "most exceptional," but not "the greatest." His speech, however, gestured toward Atlanta's emerging place on the world stage. "For one hundred years, the Olympic Games have inspired great dreams," he rhapsodized. "Today, the dream has come true for Atlanta, which will forever be an Olympic city."

Samaranch's words were as much a curse as they were a blessing. After all, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games were an ephemeral moment as much as a transformative mark on the city's landscape: a moment when Atlanta would claim its place on the international stage. This gateway reconsiders this prevailing proposition, exploring how the Games were constructed in popular discourses and how civic boosters' desire for Atlanta's international notoriety was juxtaposed with its history as a southern space.

Map of Olympic Ring in downtown and midtown Atlanta, 1996
Map of Olympic Ring in downtown and midtown Atlanta, 1996
Maps of Olympic Ring in downtown Atlanta, 1996

Atlanta Games

The Centennial Summer Olympic Games opened on the evening of Friday, July 19, 1996, at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Stadium (now Turner Field). Throughout the two weeks between the Opening and Closing Ceremonies on Sunday, August 4, the place and purpose of this patently international gathering was juxtaposed to the corporate and regional identities of Atlanta itself in the coverage of the national and international media. The festivities of the Opening Ceremonies, reported Jere Longman of the New York Times, were designed by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) as both "an extravagant pageant to honor 100 years of the modern Games" and an evocation of "the hospitable, not to mention corporate, spirit of the modern American South."

Tourist Trapping Cartoon

Soper's illustration highlights The World of Coca-Cola and Underground Atlanta, two attempts to revitalize Atlanta's downtown through tourism that were made concurrently with Atlanta's bid for the 1996 games.

Underground Atlanta History

While the attention of the international community may have been fixed on the celebration at Centennial Olympic Stadium, John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Examiner watched the Opening Ceremonies from a Hooters restaurant in Jonesboro, a blues club in the Virginia Highlands, and an African American strip club — all the while noticing that "non-Olympic Atlanta went about its business scarcely touched by what was happening at ground zero of a global viewing audience." "From redneck Jonesboro to the south to the black urban core of Atlanta," he wrote, "people ate, danced and drank with minimal interest in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games." While he acknowledged that "Georgia tried to outdo its reputation for Southern hospitality," Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post nevertheless eschewed the conventional region-based reading of these Games when judging them "not really the Atlanta Games so much as . . . the American Olympics — the first true one, with the whole world aboard, since 1924. As such, it celebrated our diversity and hospitality, our gauchery and our generosity, our isolated lunatics and our general decency. The world saw our passion for excellence and our penchant for every excess."

But Atlanta's profile as the largest urban center in the American South could not be sidestepped. "The Games pose the question about just which image is closer to the real South," Peter Applebome of the New York Times noted, "the exuberant show of interracial regional harmony and shared Southern culture that 3.5 billion viewers across the world saw Friday night or the escalating controversies over the Confederate battle flag and antebellum history that increasingly divide white and black Southerners?" Attention to such contrasts was hardly unique. Throughout the two-week media blitz, the Games were portrayed as a contest between competing urges played out across Atlanta's urban and cultural landscape - the South's Confederate past versus a desire to portray the present-day South as a land of multiracial social progress, the regional identity versus a national one, the national interest versus the international, amateur athletes versus professional ones, the integrity of the Olympic Movement's amateur competition versus the tawdriness of ACOG's commercial endorsements.

Five days before the Games opened, George Vescey of the New York Times surveyed Centennial Olympic Park, the enduring monument to these Olympics and the renewal projects which reconfigured the urban landscape of the city. "Centennial Park seemed to be a jumble of metal and stone," he reported, "plastic and neon, an old pecan tree and a few patches of grass, chain-link fence and tarps on the edges, tents and signs bearing the names of corporate sponsors — particularly Coca-Cola, the tooth-rotting dark sugar water that is such a major portion of the world's diet and Atlanta's income. Stuckey's. That's what it reminds me of, the old chain of stores that sprung up alongside the highways, where you could get gas, buy a hot dog and candy plus stock up on concrete lawn statues and souvenir mugs and gaudy T-shirts."1

In the entry for July 23, 1996, in his daily "'Packer's Journal" written for the San Francisco Examiner, Crumpacker described for his readers the overabundance of vendors throughout downtown Atlanta. "Imagine the Placer County Fair plopped down into the Olympic core of Atlanta. That's what downtown looks like as every imaginable open space is filled by vendors of every stripe. Temporary tattoos? They got 'em. Fake gold medals? Yours, if you swallow your dignity as a human being. Goofy food? Yours for the noshing. There's Australian bull riding, an ersatz NASA space center ( "Atlanta, we have a problem" ), a store devoted entirely to Hakeem Olajuwon products, whatever they may be, a booth called the Reggae Posse, and enough T-shirts to clothe Swaziland. The centerpiece of all this American schlock is a giant bungee jumping contraption. Victims sit strapped in a chair and are flung skyward by cords on either side of the seat. Recommended preparation: eight beers and a basket of cheese fries."2

Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post commented that his lasting memory of the Atlanta Games would be "inflatable beer cans." "When I close my eyes and picture Atlanta, I see a giant Miller Lite can or a giant Bud can-even better, Gumby, 80 feet high! And I'll hear the familiar strains of 'Macarena' wafting from the beer gardens (and I say familiar because they played the blasted song 400 times every night at decibel levels loud enough to wake Franco, and now 15 times a day, like a nervous twitch, I find myself spontaneously shouting, 'Heeeeyyyy, macarena!') [. . .] And I'll reflect on the 450-pound vendors nesting in the lower lobby of our comfy hotel, drawn upstairs by the smell of bacon. And the crush of people in Centennial Park waiting in line in the heat for hours to get into 'The Super Store,' a schlockery where you can buy the same official Olympic merchandise you can buy in the Kansas City airport. Speaking of Centennial Park, there is a statue there of Baron de Coubertin. He is facing 'Bud World' and 'Coca-Cola City,' and the look on his face indicates that if he'd known what the Olympics would turn into, he'd have bought Anheuser-Busch and Coke stock."3

"Despite the picture that sometimes emerged of Atlanta as a city of quick-buck hucksters," wrote Applebome, "it also takes seriously its civil rights legacy, history of overcoming adversity and sense of being at the heart of a renascent South." The Games were, in his estimation, "a remarkable pageant of interracial unity in a nation racked by racial division."4

Southern humorist and Atlanta native Roy Blount, Jr., returned home for the Games as a roving observer for Sports Illustrated. In his first dispatch, Blount considers the city's homeless population in relation to Five Points, "an area that lies just to the southeast of the Olympic Center but squarely in the middle of Atlanta history": "Five Points is an area that many suburban whites have long been loath to venture into. Now the Olympics have brought the area back into focus. City, state and private security forces are everywhere, abandoned buildings have been gussied up and pressed into service, and $5 million has been plowed into making a showpiece out of Woodruff Park, a patch of green right at Five Points' heart. What do you know? Famously amorphous Atlanta does have a central core of street life."5

In his second and final dispatch, Blount meditated on the ever-increasing connections between Atlanta and the international community into whose consciousness it so wanted to be injected.6


Labor Pooling Cartoon

This cartoon critiques the issue of temporary workers brought in to construct and staff the Olympic Village and sporting centers then laid off after the Games' close.

After Eric Rudolph's pipe bomb was detonated in Centennial Olympic Park midway through the two-week event, killing two people and injuring one hundred-thirteen more, S. L. Price of Sports Illustrated observed that "the bombing irrevocably changed the tenor of the 1996 Olympics." The bombing itself crystallized these problem-plagued Olympic Games. "Atlanta," he noted, "a booster's paradise that sought through these Games to confirm its status as a major city, now suffers the civic bruising feared by Montreal, Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona. Cruelly, Atlanta will be known for years as the city that bragged about the largest peacetime security operation in US history - but couldn't protect the Olympics."7

With a nod to southern hospitality, New York Times columnist George Vescey noted at the Games' conclusion how "like any good host, Atlanta tried to show the world a good time, and, for the most part, succeeded. When you stand at the doorway and your host and hostess say, 'Y'all come back,' you talk about the succulent roast chicken and not about the biscuits that might have been slightly burnt."8

Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Examiner lamented the Games' conclusion. Buying into the international image Atlanta attempted to project, she mourned, "I can always come back to Atlanta, but it will be an empty shell then, a world without Australian accents to greet me at the swimming pool, without 197 national flags flapping hard against each other in the latest windstorm, without Brazilian basketball fans grooving to 'Jailhouse Rock' during a timeout."9

When the Closing Ceremonies were over, Crumpacker stated bluntly in his final "'Packer's Journal" entry, "I'll miss Atlanta like a boil on the butt." In spite of these Games' organizational problems, "In a city with no charm, no grace and no ambience, the Centennial Olympic Games were nevertheless marvelous. The athletes and their performances rose above the corporate clutter and county-fair schlock of downtown Atlanta like a brightly colored hot-air balloon. Above it all."10

Post Torch

Tenant Tossing Cartoon

While the Olympics were an ephemeral moment in Atlanta's history, many changes enacted on the city's landscape for the two week event remain. The destruction of black Atlanta neighborhoods for Olympic sites changed the city's layout and racial demographics. Techwood Homes, the first public housing project in the nation, was demolished for the part of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Construction of the Centennial Olympic Stadium, now Turner field, displaced residents of the Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, and Summerhill neighborhoods.

See Map

Musing on the commercial atmosphere of the Atlanta Games, Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated wrote, "When you select, for cash and convenience, a landlocked city with little vestige of its past, one whose identity is tied to the mega-corporations it has enticed, in a country full of enterprising scrappers-over, say, Athens, which just happens to be the birthplace of the Olympics, not to mention of Western civilization, and the locale where one might look to plant the Centennial Games if ideals were what was at stake-well, then, don't you deserve all the plywood and tent poles you get?"11

In April 1996, Kevin Sack of The New York Times reported that "as Olympic planning enters its final stages, virtually every aspect of Atlanta's civic life has been transformed. Impressive new athletic structures dot the cityscape. Downtown sidewalks have been widened. Parks and pedestrian plazas have been remade. Some of the poorest neighborhoods have seen colorful town houses rise where tar-paper shacks once stood." He gave special attention to Summerhill, "a devastated neighborhood adjacent to the stadium. Community leaders there had threatened to make trouble for the new stadium if they did not get a piece of the Olympic pie, and peace was bought with city improvements, federal grants and risk-taking investments by developers and bankers. Some 200 slum houses have been leveled, and clean, colorful subdivisions have risen in their place."12

Such optimism suffused both short-term and long-term projections for the Games' economic impacts on metro Atlanta. ACOG leadership continually argued that the anticipated $5 billion financial boon to the city and the state as a whole would provide enough ballast to lift Atlanta to its coveted international status and irrevocably reshape the city's urban landscape for the better. Economists Jeffrey Humphries and Michael K. Plummer forecasted before the Games opened that "the Olympics will showcase the state. The opportunity to foster long-term business relationships will be enormous. The long-term beneficial effects on decisions regarding investment, trade, corporate relocation, government spending, convention sites, the location of major sporting events, and vacation plans will likely be among the most enduring, yet statistically untraceable, legacies of the Games." More importantly, they averred, "many Olympic-related programs will have a positive effect on the quality of life within the community. Although the success of many of these programs will be difficult to measure in economic terms, their impact on individuals, groups and the community at large will be an important legacy of the 1996 Games."13

At the time that local real estate attorney Billy Payne began his nearly one-man push for an Atlanta Olympics in 1987, the success of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games still hung sweetly in the air. A ninety million dollar surplus from those Games went to support the establishment of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, lending credence to the notion that the Olympics could galvanize a sustainable civic movement focused on a city's economic, cultural and athletic life. Writing about the Games in 1998, Elizabeth Vaeth of the Atlanta Business Journal commented on the optimism of such goals: "That money could go a long way toward improvements: Infrastructure! Facilities! Big bucks for local businesses! Programming dollars for arts organizations! In the end, it appears there will be only a little money remaining — as of spring 1998, the final accounting still remained to be done — and it's designated for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and amateur athletics. That's a far cry from Los Angeles."14

But this optimism did not permeate every community in the metro Atlanta area. In the 1996 issue of Southern Changes devoted entirely to considering the social impacts and consequences of the Atlanta Games, Preston Quesenberry argued that "as for generalized depictions of an 'economic boom,' such talk obviously ignores a great many people who have not shared in the supposedly ubiquitous prosperity."

"While the Chamber of Commerce may boast that Atlanta was voted number two in Fortune's 1995 'Best Cities for Business' list, the city also ranks number two in the nation in income disparity between blacks and whites, number two in the percentage of the population living in public housing, number two in violent crimes per capita, number two in total crimes per capita, and number nine in the rate of poverty. While the voices for business say that the Atlanta metropolitan area leads the nation in in-migration because of its 'unmatched quality of life,' the population living in the city itself (now generously estimated at 424,300) has been shrinking for more than twenty years. An estimated fifteen to twenty thousand people in this urban-core population can't find any place to live, much less a place 'unmatched in quality,' and an additional fifty thousand live in public housing with seven thousand qualified applicants waiting to move in.

"The world of journalists descending on Atlanta for the Olympics will find it particularly difficult to ignore this poverty because so much of it is concentrated in and around what is known as the Olympic Ring - a three-mile wide circular area in Atlanta's downtown core which contains nine major venues holding sixteen of the thirty sporting events. According to data collected in 1990, ninety-two percent of the 52,000 people living in the Olympic Ring neighborhoods are African-American, and most of them are poor. The median household income in these neighborhoods is just $8,621, the median per-capita income is $5,702, and labor participation rates are no higher than seventy percent and as low as thirty-five percent. Does ACOG expect journalists not to address this obvious poverty in their descriptions of the city? As Reverend Austin Ford, who works in the neighborhood surrounding the new Olympic stadium, puts it, 'The Olympic stadium is in a very depressed community, and I don't know that the journalists will need for that to be pointed out to them. They might say, 'Well, I can see!'"15

But such problems were, to the mind of Charles Rutheiser, crystallized by the construction and development of Centennial Olympic Park itself - Billy Payne's dream of an enduring landmark that the Olympics once took place in Atlanta. "Sold to the people of Atlanta as a state-of-the-art open gathering place," Rutheiser writes, "the park, in its Olympic manifestation at least, is neither all that open nor public, nothing more than an ephemeral simulation of a public open space of an earlier age. The failure to address the problems of adjacent poor neighborhoods, public housing projects, and the homeless raises the prospect of the park becoming as empty and objectionable to the business community as the current "void" is, if not more so given the heightening of expectations. Then again, the lack of linkage between specific projects and the surrounding urban whole is a general failing of virtually all ongoing efforts at urban redevelopment in Atlanta and elsewhere."16