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Atlanta Mounting Olympian Effort at Getting 1996 Games : Boosterism: City cites 80,000 jobs, $3.5-billion increase to economy, international stature as reasons for campaign.

August 25, 1990|LEE MAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Hotter than summer in the South, Olympic fever rages across Georgia as the state tries to lure the 1996 Games to Atlanta, attempting to make it the first U.S. city east of the Mississippi River to host the Olympics. From Atlanta to Savannah, boosters are hard at work, promoting this city and, by extension, the state and the region as the most attractive location among the six contenders for the Summer Games.

Atlanta is awash in banners, benefits and T-shirts, aimed at putting Georgia on the minds of the 89 members of the International Olympic Committee when they meet in Tokyo on Sept. 18 to make their decision. The city's efforts range from gathering signatures on "the world's biggest baseball" to the soothing, well-modulated message that travelers hear as they ride up the escalator at Atlanta's busy Hartsfield International Airport: "Welcome to Atlanta, America's choice for the 1996 Summer Olympics."

Nearly 300 miles away, in coastal Savannah, where yachting events would be held, banners fly, too. Billboards push the effort, as do Olympic T-shirts.

It was almost four years ago that the world--including some Georgians--snickered when Atlanta announced it wanted the Olympics. Then, in 1988, the city beat out 14 U.S. rivals for the right to represent this country in the competition for the Games. Still, Atlanta was not given much of a chance, especially considering that one of its competitors is Athens, Greece, which hosted the first modern-day Olympics in 1896 and is a sentimental favorite to repeat for the centennial.

But now, Atlanta seems like a marathoner who has run a controlled race, staying close to the leader, and is kicking to the finish. And around Georgia, at least, nobody is counting Atlanta out. Around the world, fewer and fewer people think--as they did initially--that Atlantic City, N.J., is the U.S. competitor.

In addition to Athens, cities competing against Atlanta for the Games are Toronto, Melbourne, Belgrade and Manchester.

Last Tuesday, about 200 business and civic leaders gathered at the downtown World Congress Center for an "Olympic Send-Off" for the city's 350-member lobbying delegation heading for Tokyo. Atlantans are unabashed boosters. Promoting the city is almost an out-of-body experience. Some people actually used the word spiritual to describe the city's Olympic effort. Al Swan, president of Bank South, called the city's bid "one of the most important things to ever happen to Atlanta."

And in one of several pep talks to the delegation, Raymond Riddle, president of First Atlanta Bank, said: "We're not sending you to Tokyo to get a bronze or a silver. We want you to bring back the gold."

Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Organizing Committee and a one-time defensive end for the University of Georgia, described the excitement that has driven him during the quest: "If you took the adrenaline flow five minutes before kickoff and kept it up for four years, it'd be similar. It's much more intense than I ever thought it would be."

The feverish quest for the Games could be explained as simply a reaction by a city that for so long has been ridiculed for professional teams that are so bad. Or by the city's desire to emulate Los Angeles' financial success with the 1984 Olympics. But Atlanta is also driven by the peculiar Southern need, ingrained since the Civil War ended, to prove to the world that it is as decent, fair and, well, normal as any place in America.

Atlanta feels even more keenly than the rest of the South the need to prove itself because it believes so strongly that its quality of life, economic vitality and social progressiveness are better than in any other place on Earth. Playing host to the 1988 Democratic Convention helped satisfy the city's need to display its assets, as did its recent successful bid to hold the 1994 Super Bowl. But none of that is enough.

"The Olympics would be a 'validator,' " said Barry King, a public relations consultant in nearby Covington, Ga. "Once you host one of those events, you've come of age."

Barbara Saunders, special promotions director at the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, said: "People are eager to have the new Georgia and the new Atlanta recognized for what we really are. We're very progressive. We're not slow and backward and behind the times. Events like this get that point across."

The Summer Games have been held in only two U.S. cities--Los Angeles, in 1932 and 1984; and St. Louis, in 1904. Some supporters of the Atlanta bid say it is time to bring the Games across the Mississippi River, into the land of Southern hospitality, birthplace of civil rights.

While emotion is a large part of the city's bid, it is certainly not the only part.

Asked why he wanted the Olympics here, Roger Bussell, who runs an automobile repair business, said: "Anything to give us more business," putting financial motivation in its simplest terms.

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