SI Olympic Coverage SI Olympic Coverage

It's Greek to U.S.

The Atlanta Olympics began with an orgy of commercialism that was classically American

by Gary Smith

So let us not give in to base temptation. Let us not succumb to the urge to scatter or swat a single one of the moths that gathered last week in the glow of Atlanta's Olympic torch. Let us not bemoan the Ferris wheels, the Tilt-a-Whirls, the palm readers, the mechanized bulls, the test-your-strength sledgehammers and the makeshift rodeo that materialized—poof!—out of thick air, nor the chain of city blocks that were asphalted so that pavilions, tents, booths, kiosks, stands, trailers, rolling carts and dispensing machines could supply the Centennial Games with sunglasses, soda, beer, body oils, cowboy hats, USA umbrellas, USA underwear, Confederate swim trunks and Cajun alligator, all to the background braying of the bric-a-brac peddlers, the grrrr of electric generators and the soothing strains of "Rock 'n' Roll Hoochie Coo, Lordy Mama Light My Fuse."

Picture

The icons of Olympics past stood in stark contrast to the 1996 Games of lucre.

photograph by
David E. Klutho


Let us not lament Flossie's Funnel Cakes, Little Joe's Pizza and Moscow's World-Famous Peroshkis, nor the plastic and plywood and eight-penny nails that wrought them and their kind by the thousands. Let us not bleat over the handiwork of Flossie's corporate big brothers, the gargantuan Swatch clinging to the skyscraper wall, the Coca-Cola logos being projected onto the subway station floors, the demise of bus buses, street pole street poles and barricade barricades to make way for Minute Maid buses, Visa street poles and PowerAde barricades. Shhhh, not a peep over the 50-foot inflatable Gumby and the huge papier-mâché Elvis,

Marilyn and Tarzan figures summoning the masses to quaff beer in the "Celebration of the Century" macadam lot, nor the American Indians in native garb jingle-jangling down the sidewalk pushing fliers for the $18-a-pop Pow Wow that just happened to break out in midtown Atlanta the same 2 1/2 weeks as the Olympics.

"Clutter?" No more of this word, which International Olympic Committee executive board member Dick Pound used to describe the ambience of the Summer Games last Thursday. "All this stuff makes it look like M*A*S*H," Pound declared. "You know, that tent hospital look. It scars the look of the Games. Certainly we had no idea this would happen when we made our deal with Atlanta. Maybe we were naive. But other Olympic cities decided they weren't going to turn the Games into a carnival. For Atlanta it's a missed opportunity. We'll be putting a clause in the contract to make sure this doesn't happen again. Rely on it."

O.K., O.K., so maybe Dick's right. Maybe there is too much clutter, too much M*A*S*H and mish-M*A*S*H. Perhaps these will go down as the Carny Olympics, the International Georgia State Fair with the cotton candy you couldn't quite get out of your cowlick. It's the fiercest and most transient buying-and-selling forum in human history, a tent city crouched between the toes of a skyscraper city—one good wind and the Olympic party is over.

Picture

Astonishment ran through the stadium, then a roar. There stood Ali, a specter dressed in white.

photograph by
Peter Read Miller


But this is Atlanta, and this is us. And this is what the IOC chose. 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?

Every Olympics is the revelation of the soul of its host, and every host must be permitted this revelation. The Lillehammer Games of 1994 were heartiness and unflinching politeness. The Barcelona Games of 1992 were artistic flare and vibrant streetlife. The Seoul Games of 1988 were cool, militaristic efficiency, the Sarajevo Games of 1984 bear-hug warmth. In Atlanta there is something close to magnificence in the nakedness and scope of the entrepreneuring, the utter absence of blushing, apology or pretension, the willy-nilly turning on its head of the very thing that keeps bringing everyone back to the Olympics in the first place. Here it's done with a purity almost equal to that occurring on the playing fields and on the courts. No one in Atlanta has to fake anything, and almost everyone is in high spirits, an astonishing number spreading the good cheer and the capitalist spirit through the cellular telephones pressed to their jaws. The strip clubs are everywhere, and they're hopping, as are the people hoisting banners warning the world that time is running out, you're headed for hell or singing verses such as "God's Gonna Rain Down Fiiiii-yuh!" Men wailing on saxophones and trumpets are all around, too. The easy friendliness on the streets is infectious, and everything's convenient. Nike Park is right next to Coca-Cola Olympic City, which is just a few blocks from the Samsung pavilion, which is but a short stroll from Nissan's tent showroom, which is only a few dozen beer and soda stands from the Swatch and AT&T pavilions—raising the frightening question of what was here before? but answering the even more terrifying question of what will occupy two million visitors here for 2 1/2 weeks? Already, a startling number of adults at the new Centennial Park are finding far more wonder outside the pavilions of the self-proclaimed "Proud Sponsors" than inside them, simply staring as hundreds of fully clothed, bone-soaked children laugh and whoop and dance through the big spray fountain.

Basically, anything goes here. McDonald's executives surely kicked up their heels when they realized they could elevate their golden arches just high enough outside the Olympic Stadium that when the athletes appeared at the top of an enormous ramp to enter for the opening ceremony's Parade of Nations, it seemed as if they were marching straight out of the maw of a McDonald's drive-thru window. Shaquille O'Neal, ever the good corporate soldier, refused to answer questions about his new $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers at the U.S. men's basketball team press conference, so that he could answer them in front of a bank of television screens flashing the Reebok logo a few hours later. Sports Illustrated, for its $40 million sponsorship, received exclusive rights to sell, at Olympic venues, a $3 daily magazine published during the Games. Underground Atlanta, the gentrified subterranean midtown shopping complex, one day charged $5 to walk through the door, which meant that people even had to pay for the right to buy.

A little sympathy, then, for poor General Motors, which planned to break Olympic ground by having Chevrolet logos blazing from the tailgates of the 30 pickup trucks that would appear in the sacred ritual of the opening ceremony. GM was already cawing in a press release when Olympic officials found their long-lost pencil and drew the line. Trucks yes, logos no. But it really didn't matter much anyway, because none of this could damage the Games. So many corporations had invested so much money that it was now in everyone's interests to keep inflating the mythology of the Olympics, and the individual stories that the Games began delivering on Saturday would once more be so damn spontaneous and emotionally pure that nothing could bespatter them.

Besides, after the corporate Tyrannosaurus Rexes had been freed to stomp the cityscape, how could it have been fair to keep all the little critters caged for the Games? Like the virtual-reality mongers offering folks the opportunity to walk inside a tent and virtually do virtually anything that they would never do in life—virtually fly an F-14 or virtually bobsled. Or the operators of The Ejection Seat, providing citizens the chance to be strapped into a seat for $50 and slingshot at 60 miles per hour to a height of 150 feet by means of giant bungee cords—certainly not an attraction one would want to stand beneath without a USA umbrella.

"I don't see anything wrong," Billy Payne, the organizer of this Olympics, said last week. "It's just Atlanta getting ready to party."

"That's the spirit of the Games—people feeling like money is being made, business is being done!" cried Munson Steed. A year and a half ago it dawned on Steed, the 35-year-old owner of B.G. Swing Games Management Inc., that space was the final frontier—the one thing left that hadn't been marketed—that public streets, sidewalks, parks, barricades and street poles could be worth millions. He won the right, with a $2.5 million bid, to market that space to nearly 400 companies and vendors. "Dick Pound?" said Steed, reflecting on the IOC executive who had expressed disapproval of such free enterprise. "Homeboy doesn't believe in diversity. It's shameful. Most people can't afford to attend the private parties or buy Olympic tickets, but they can afford to come to Atlanta and enjoy the fun—the clutter. People from around the world don't just want to come to the Games—they want to take something back, no matter how cheesy. Where else does Dick Pound anticipate an African-American entrepreneur like me will participate in the Olympics? If not for this, our Olympic dream would be deferred. I'm selling presence, man. Presence is critical!

"Besides, my 370 vendors are not even 10 percent of the ones out there. There are 6,000 others, easy, who are leasing sites on private property. If you took them all away, Atlanta would just be a sea of sameness. Hey, this is America, for better or worse. Me? I walk the streets and I get happy."

Steed's mood was the prevailing one, in spite of the withering heat, the insanely crowded subways, the bus drivers from out of town who kept getting lost; in spite of the shadow cast by the death of 230 people in the TWA airliner explosion last Wednesday that many believe was the work of terrorists and was connected to the Olympics. Lines at security checkpoints were long, but few complained.

Atlantans are too busy relishing the sheer record-breaking bulk of these Games—the 11,000 athletes from 197 nations who showed up, the 3.5 billion TV viewers, the 45,000-volunteer army, the 30,000-deep security force, the 15,000 members of the press, the 8,250 cast and crew members who staged Friday's opening ceremony.

The ceremony was one more reminder that almost nothing can occur in Olympic host cities, short of massacre, that leaves any significant footprints upon the spectacles unfolding inside the stadium and arena walls. Yes, the show went too late and lasted too long, and the shoddy organization of the Parade of Nations caused yawning gaps between entrances of delegations and then sudden hurry-up calls that sent athletes charging up and over the ramp as if they were taking Pork Chop Hill. But the night also delivered unforgettable images. Has there been a finer Olympic artistic conception than the larger-than-life silhouettes of ancient Greek athletes performing their sports, which dancers and powerful lamps contrived to cast upon immense panels of translucent silk?

The most brilliant moment of all came well after midnight, when four-time gold medalist swimmer Janet Evans ran the Olympic torch up the ramp, and 85,000 people strained to see who would take the flame from there and ignite the 72-ton cauldron on the tower above. Suddenly, there stood perhaps history's most legendary athlete, a specter dressed in white, a man whose name had been mentioned by almost no one in the week before the ceremony. First an astonished "Whoooooaaaaa!" shot through the stadium, then a delirious roar, as 54-year-old Muhammad Ali took the flame, his empty left hand shaking from the effects of Parkinson's syndrome. And then Ali bent over a wick attached to a pulley, and performed the silent action that carried no price tag, needed no logo, hawked no product ... that made everything occurring on the streets of Atlanta vanish in a puff of smoke.


Olympic Daily Photo
Galleries Features from SI Olympic
Commemorative CNN/SI