As the Olympic movement looks ahead to the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, and beyond, what lessons has the International Olympic Committee learned from Atlanta?
On balance, the Centennial Games are being billed as a success in the areas that matter most to the IOC: the competition, which was generally outstanding, and the television ratings, which were excellent in the U.S. and overseas. "The four billion people who weren't here think the Games were terrific," says Canadian lawyer Dick Pound, an IOC vice president.
And the 1.4 million people who were in Atlanta, clogging the main thoroughfares in search of something to do besides purchase T-shirts and pins from the ubiquitous sidewalk vendors? They might be forgiven for tempering their praise a bit. Between the Centennial Park bombing, the overcrowded subways, the dysfunctional bus system, the breakdown in the technology designed to distribute information to the media, and the carnival ambience of unchecked commercialism, the Games in Atlanta suffered more problems than any since those of Munich in 1972.
Some of the woes can be ascribed to growing pains, for these were by far the largest Olympics ever held, a record many IOC officials hope will never be broken. For the first time, every invited nation—this year there were 197—came to the Games. Ticket sales reached 8.6 million, compared with 5.7 million for the Los Angeles (1984) Games and 3.5 million for those in Barcelona ('92). A total of 10,750 athletes were accredited, 15% more than the 9,364 who competed in Barcelona.
"What we did was organize the equivalent of 2½ Olympic Games," says Billy Payne, president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). "Atlanta was enormous in the context of Olympics history. With that came some problems with transportation and technology. Unfortunately those two arrows went right to the media. But we made the Olympic experience available to millions and millions of people, and that will be the long-term landmark of these Games."
True, the Games were available—but for a hefty investment. Payne makes it sound as if he were some sort of Olympic Robin Hood bringing the Games to the masses, when in fact he was using ticket sales as an unprecedentedly high percentage of his revenue stream. Tickets for the opening ceremonies were as steep as $636. Gymnastics, a sport that demands an intimate setting, was held in the immense spaces of the Georgia Dome, where some nosebleed seats cost more than $100. Nor were the media alone in feeling the sting of Atlanta's overmatched transportation system, which sometimes left spectators and even participants stranded for hours.
Sydney's organizers are already promising that no such transportation problems will surface in their city. For one thing there will be fewer spectators: Current estimates are that 6.1 million tickets will be sold. "In Sydney ticket sales are of far less importance to the budget than they were in Atlanta," says Jacques Rogge, an IOC member from Belgium. "We need spectators at the Games, but the IOC does not insist on 100,000-seat stadiums. The Olympics are primarily put on for television."
In Sydney most athletes and members of the press will be able to walk from their lodgings to the venues. The Sydney Olympic Park, eight miles west of the city center, will contain the Olympic Village, the Officials' Village, the Media Village, the Main Press Center, the International Broadcast Center and 15 of the 27 Olympic sports venues—all within a circle two miles in diameter. Since the city is set on a harbor, ferries will be used to supplement ground transportation. Most important, Sydney's existing public transportation system, unlike Atlanta's MARTA, is designed to handle the kinds of numbers Australia's largest city (3.74 million in the metropolitan area) will see during the Games.
"Certainly for the future, the focus should be on bids from the largest or second-largest cities in a country," says Australia's Kevan Gosper, a member of the executive board of the IOC. "While Atlanta was not in that category, we thought that the U.S. was the one country that could mobilize resources in time to bring in the necessary people and technology." Atlanta did import bus drivers (as well as buses), security personnel and 45,000 volunteers from all over the country, but ACOG didn't bring them in early enough to give them even a rudimentary familiarity with the area. For the first week the Games were referred to as the I Don't Know Olympics because that was the answer most often given by ACOG volunteers when asked for directions. "In Sydney," says Gosper, "all the volunteers and drivers will be drawn from the city itself."
Sydney also hopes that planning will help it avoid the technological glitches that plagued Info '96, the IBM system that was supposed to distribute competition results and athletes' biographical information instantaneously but was so slow that people began referring to it as Info '97. Mai Hemmerling, the CEO of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG), vows that for 2000 the system will be fully tested and operational a year before the lighting of the flame. That is the same deadline Hemmerling has set for all the venues to be built. "We already have $1.3 billion [$910 million U.S.] of our $2 billion [$1.4 billion U.S.] budget raised—more than 60 percent—with four years to go," Hemmerling says. "That was Billy Payne's biggest problem: He was always chasing after revenue while trying to do all these other things." (ACOG, which had a budget of $1.7 billion, says it will break even on the '96 Games.)