SI Vault
Gary Smith
August 05, 1996
The king of all Atlanta buildings, the Georgia World Congress Center is the colossus of Olympic venues, a city beneath a roof that is home to nearly one fifth of the events in these Games.
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August 05, 1996

Edifice Rex

The king of all Atlanta buildings, the Georgia World Congress Center is the colossus of Olympic venues, a city beneath a roof that is home to nearly one fifth of the events in these Games.

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Perhaps that sprint through the building is not such a good idea. Better to sit back and watch tens of thousands of people find their way in and out of the GWCC's 75 bathrooms and 2,000 doors, up and down its 50 escalators and 25 elevators. Funny how this 20-year-old building, the nerve center of this entire unnerved Olympics, is its most composed place.

But why should this building pay any heed to the Polish wrestling lunatics who were stomping down its concourses last week, their faces painted red and white? Or to the nationalist frenzy of the Turkish and Greek contingents whipping on their boys in the weightlifting hall? Or to the Egyptians slashing the air with their flags and dancing madly to Burning Down the House in the team handball venue, or to the South Korean judo fans beating together small yellow bats called bang mangi as they rooted middleweight Cho Min-sun to her gold medal, or to the 286-pound Greco-Roman wrestler, Aleksandr Karelin of Russia, hoisting another opponent over his head and heaving him to the floor en route to his third straight Olympic gold medal, or to the police yanking apart Cuban fencer Elvis Gregory and his victorious French opponent, Philippe Omnes, when the two began throwing punches after Gregory refused to shake hands, or to the bald, 52-year-old American wrestling coach, Bob Anderson, uttering his wedding vows before a minister just outside the wrestling venue, or to the fans lying shoeless on the carpet, legs akimbo, sound asleep, or to the presidents, kings and princes striding past them to cheer for their homeboys, or to the teenagers using all that space to play catch, or to the journalists, coaches and athletes catching a smoke on the back loading dock, or to all the screams of joy and sobs of despair ringing through the building's innards, the sounds of hundreds of hopes and dreams being snuffed and sated? Why, when this is a building that routinely swallows more people a day during its mega-trade shows, a building that has—in a single gulp—simultaneously taken in five conventions attended by a total of 118,000 people, that has had a tornado unleashed inside its belly by Nike as part of a trade show, and indoor fireworks set off? Do you actually think that the Olympics is going to faze a building that has survived 75,000 Amway distributors, 60,000 hair stylists, 50,000 Southern Baptists and 22,000 Boy Scouts, not to mention a Turkish whirling-dervish troupe, the Cat Fanciers Association and the funeral directors' convention, with all the latest in caskets and headstones? What Olympic gold or silver can match the booty—or the beauty—that is rumored to be behind the dark windows of the limousines that purr up to the loading docks of the GWCC at night, helping the Japanese manufacturers of million-dollar textile machinery to woo their clients?

Speaking of which, let's just stand behind the palm tree over here and watch the Japanese fans. They're the ones spinning circles with their video cameras, wishing they had an island this big, too proud to admit they're lost. It might take a good quarter hour before some traffic controller locates them on the radar and directs them toward the sport they've come to see. The locals have no such reticence. "Where's the sword fighting?" some of them call out to the volunteers who are busy waving pictograms—insignia for the various sports—and trying to keep the line that is forming for fencing from getting tangled in the ones forming for handball and judo.

All nationalities are bewildered by the outer chamber they must enter before they are allowed inside the table tennis venue. You walk into a small room and wait until a few dozen others have joined you, and then the doors behind you are shut. You're waiting to hear the hiss of gas from a wall duct when a volunteer explains that this is an air lock, designed to prevent air currents from disturbing the flight of the little orange balls whizzing across the eight purple tables. Then he gives his relieved listeners the O.K. to proceed through the next set of doors and go inside.

You wonder what it takes to ride this eight-event beast, and you walk inside the office of Jim Oshust, the 62-year-old silver-haired jockey holding the reins, and the first thing you see is a piece of paper with a giant NO! taped to the front of his desk, and a blue rubber ball that he clutches and fondles while reports from the field crackle over his walkie-talkie. And then he sits back and starts shooting one-liners at you, smiling and chatting about his monumental task, and you realize that it requires a man like him, a man a lot like this building: big-shouldered and tranquil, innately accommodating. "If Moses had as many meetings as we've had," Oshust says, "his people would still be in a suburb of Cairo. Four more memos and the forests of Georgia are gone. What we did, basically, was build five small Madison Square Gardens inside a box, seating and all. Everything inside's temporary. A few days after the Games, it'll all be torn down, gone. Fun? About as much fun as a vasectomy with a Weed Eater."

He spent July 22—his 35th wedding anniversary—working a 19½-hour shift, and now he's making sure one of his crews is ready to convert Hall G from Greco-Roman wrestling to team handball. "I have to believe all this can be done," says Oshust, the former operations director at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, "because the minute I don't, it's going to permeate all the people working here. Most of them are volunteers. When they see all these people coming at them, there's a tendency to be overwhelmed psychologically and emotionally. If I have a big problem here, there are going to be people screaming like a long-tailed dog in a room full of rockers. This building helps a lot, though. It's like old money: elegant, quiet, effective."

"I keep hearing on the radio about all the people complaining about all the problems at these Olympics," says weary-eyed Andy Griffin, Oshust's assistant venue logistics manager, "but there's yet to be a single horror story in the World Congress Center."

Over at the three-story waterfall, kids are pausing as they exit the building, peering over the railing to make wishes and heave coins to the faraway bottom. Everyone's smiling. Everyone has been lost. Everyone has been found. Another good day inside the Buddha that swallowed a beehive.

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