Watch out, New York
Atlanta shows that Olympic legacy fades away quickly
Posted: Friday June 18, 2004 8:03PM; Updated: Friday June 18, 2004 8:03PM
As the Olympic torch is trotted through the streets of Atlanta this weekend, Billy Payne, the genius behind the 1996 Games, is prepped to run in Centennial Park. Gail Devers, Gwen Torrence and other celebrities and athletes will crop up in white t-shirt and shorts for a nostalgic run. And a few hundred wrestlers, boxers and the like from 10 countries will be on display about the city in an X-Games meets the Olympics event dubbed the Titan Games.
A nice frolic in the park, but this is no Olympic legacy. Yet this is about as good as it gets post-Games.
Folks in New York need to listen up. You can spend a small fortune luring the Games to the Big Apple, fuel a billion-dollar building boom that stuffs the pockets of developers and brings a new home for the NFL's Jets, but keeping the five-ring thing alive after the Olympics leave town isn't going to happen. And probably isn't realistic anyway.
If you're a pro sports city, and that spells New York, you don't want to be caught messing around too long in the world of rhythmic gymnastics and water polo. The same goes if you're a city like Atlanta that gets its pulse from college sports, as in Southern football. The Games pull out of town and life goes on. You stage a two-week athletic carnival and, if things go well, pray the local municipality isn't sent into financial ruin.
Things go away and facilities go into near sleep mode. The legacy fades. The athletes and the competitions go to other cities with more eager civic boosters.
Just take the Atlanta experience. What was the shooting complex is shut down. The beach volleyball complex isn't in the sports business anymore. The tennis complex hosts high school and local tournaments. And the most prominent symbol of the Games, the 85,000 seat stadium where Muhammad Ali lit the torch and Michael Johnson blazed the red rubber track, was long ago converted to a 50,000-seat home for the baseball Braves, with scant evidence the Olympics were ever held there.
We're talking Olympic torch here, right? Well, lest anyone come looking this weekend for the Olympic cauldron, remembered as looking like a McDonald's french fry box, it was disconnected from the reconfigured stadium after the Games and moved to the far edge of a parking lot.
If I sound jaded, I am. I put a few years into the lead-up to the Games, got the first glimpse at the plans and wrote about the bold dreams. I enjoyed the best seat in the house that summer, day and night, covering track and field. And now, eight years and coming up on two Summer Olympics later, it's hard to find much of what could be called a legacy to one of the finest athletic competitions. Maybe these Titan Games are a start, who knows?
Payne scoffs at the suggestion of a lost legacy, anyway. But hey, what would you expect of the guy who dreamed up and has his fingerprints all over the Atlanta Olympics?
"The direct legacy is we built $650 million of facilities, all of which were given away, cost and debt free to universities, to the city, to county governments,'' Payne offers. "What I am most proud of is that with some residual dollars left over from the Games, we have actively financially supported a very major rowing and canoeing effort in Gainesville [Georgia], which is starting to produce national champions. We have significantly funded, and continue to do so, the Boys and Girls Clubs with a special emphasis on some sports that they have implemented, predominantly for inner cities kids -- judo, team handball. All of those are right on the brink of producing some Olympians as well.''
That's all swell, especially the debt-free facilities -- though Turner Field accounts for most of the coin. The problem is Atlanta quit the Olympic business the day Payne and his private organizing committee folded their tent. Like New York and other cities, Atlanta leaders found themselves too consumed balancing budgets and dealing with mundane sewer system woes to throw good money and energy at an Olympic legacy.
Payne and chamber of commerce types would argue that Atlanta now enjoys an increased international presence, and they're right. But its sporting legacy is an absolute dud on par with the local NBA affiliate, the Hawks.
The city hasn't hosted anything approaching even a national track and field championship. Heck, it doesn't have a suitable track, unless you count circling the bases at Turner Field. And as best I can tell, Atlanta hasn't witnessed an Olympic-style sports event -- other than a national figure skating championship and some table tennis and fencing events -- until this weekend.
"That's because we haven't gone after it,'' Payne says. "There is a recovery period from all this. The people like me and many others who did the Olympics, we've got to get the new generation in there. And if you look around the United States, Olympics sports, except in an Olympic year, don't mandate the interest of a majority of folks. We got baseball and football and we got basketball. That is how we grow up.
"If you go back since our Games and take the track national championships, you will see the majority have been in cities who aspire to the growth and the reputation that Atlanta already has. They are using it as a building block. We had the Olympics -- we don't necessarily need that. At same time, I think people are going to say through the years, 'Hell, we miss that. Let's do some more.'''
Are you listening New York? You can build a stadium and play host to the sporting world for a couple weeks, but this Olympic legacy stuff doesn't have much of a shelf life.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.