Atlanta's Olympic legacy 

When Atlanta was awarded the Olympics 22 years ago, it was forever changed. For better or worse is still being debated.

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Eric Rudolph's pipe bomb left a permanent nail mark embedded in a statue at the northeast end of Centennial Olympic Park - MAX BLAU
  • Max Blau
  • Eric Rudolph's pipe bomb left a permanent nail mark embedded in a statue at the northeast end of Centennial Olympic Park

Steed, an entrepreneur with close ties to then-Mayor Bill Campbell's office, sold vendors stalls outside various Olympics venues, most notably along the sidewalks that decorated Hank Aaron Drive. In setting up these city-sanctioned, revenue-generating programs, he exploited major Olympic sponsors, threatening to work with their competitors if they didn't participate in his programs — a clear violation of the ambush-free sponsorship contracts these corporations held.

"We ended up, in some cases, looking like a third-world city because these people sell gear on the side of the street," Frazier says. "The people who were selling goods were supposed to sell them off the sidewalk, but they didn't. They moved on the sidewalk, so people moved from the sidewalks into the streets and the buses had a hard time getting around."

It wasn't just small-scale vendors or city-backed efforts that tarnished Atlanta's image. Larger companies not only slapped the five Olympic rings on apparel and souvenirs, but they also merchandised commodities including motor oil (Havoline) and soap bars (Dial). Detractors likened the Olympic cauldron to a carton of McDonald's french fries, while the Varsity created its own Olympic pin, swapping out the signature logo for onion rings.

"One of the most famous pins is the five rings — five onion rings — from the Varsity," Atlanta History Center curator Don Rooney shares as he shows me thousands of pieces of memorabilia from the museum's archives. "The Varsity had its onion rings coming out of the rings, it so happened that the IOC didn't like that very much. They had a cease and desist."

"It turned out to be quite a black mark and was one of the reasons that Samaranch wasn't as effusive as he usually is about his praising of the games," Diggelmann states. "It was a black mark not on the athletic part of the games, but it was certainly was on the marketing side and the visual impact."

All of these issues, however, paled in comparison to the indelible mark left by Eric Rudolph's Olympic Park bombing, which killed two people, injured 111 spectators, and cast a shadow over the triumphant mood that typically surrounds the Olympic games.

"We had a bomb," Frazier says. "We had an American put a bomb — this was a serious bomb — in a public place and killed [two people] and injured others. That's a bad thing. I felt the bomb. I went outside and it was pretty bad. I was on the balcony and looked over to the park — people who were injured and it was just tough."

While Olympic organizers, volunteers, athletes, and attendees resoundingly carried on in the face of tragedy, the disaster weighed heavily in the minds of IOC organizers. Samaranch, known for his traditional praising of every city as the "best Olympic games ever," only referred to the Atlanta events as "most exceptional." That seems like a notable recognition, but those familiar with the Olympics understand the remark's gravity.

"We resented that deeply," Frazier adamantly states. "I know Billy did and I did, too. We put on the biggest games ever held. We sold 8.6 million tickets, which is more people than saw the Los Angeles games and Barcelona games combined. More people saw women's sports in the Atlanta games than the entire games in Barcelona as ticket holders."

The Atlanta Olympics had its fair share of issues, but it was also successful in many ways. In fact, much of the Olympic effect has blossomed throughout the metro area over the past 16 years. Atlanta shattered precedents for female and Paralympic athletic participation.

"Atlanta Olympic and Paralympic linked together in a new way so future bid cities learned something from Atlanta's effort," Rooney says. "The green function and energy efficiency was something that came about at the time Atlanta was bidding for the games. ... Atlanta was the first games to have e-commerce in a significant way."

Atlanta experienced perhaps the most prosperous period in its storied history following the Olympics. Population surged from 3.5 million metro-area inhabitants in 1996 to 5.5 million residents in 2011. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has continued its reign as the world's busiest airports since 1998. As of 2010, 12 Fortune 500 companies call Atlanta their home. Only three other metropolitan areas in the United States — New York, Houston, and Dallas — top that figure.

Fifteen additional companies with headquarters based out of Atlanta made the Fortune 1000 that same year, while countless corporations have established regional headquarters in the surrounding area. While this sustained increase in economic growth can't be entirely attributed to the Olympics, it's not a far stretch to say that the two are interconnected.

"Our legacy with corporations — Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and others — are now joined by regional offices of international companies," Frazier surmises. "I think the economic development of this city was fundamentally boosted by the Olympic games."

When Atlanta was awarded the Olympics 22 years ago, it was forever changed. For better or worse is still being debated.

By Max Blau

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