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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Welcome to the Tacky Games

Analysis: Ambiance is more fitting for a NASCAR race than the pantheon of sports.

July 28, 1996|HAL BOCK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATLANTA — Part of the pageantry of the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games was a human signboard covering the infield at the stadium, spelling out that traditional southern greeting: "How y'all doin'?"

After a week of the centennial games, the response might be: "Not so great."

Confused bus drivers have been ferrying unsuspecting visitors all over the state of Georgia. Organizers have had a devil of a time delivering results to the appropriate places. And one man equipped with a .45 was arrested at the opening ceremonies.

Now this is a place where there are metal detectors everywhere. You even get scanned coming out of restrooms. So how did some goober with a gun get into the same stadium as the president of the United States?

"He came early," an Atlanta Olympic official explained.

Oh.

These have become the Tacky Olympics, equipped with a seamy side that hardly seems appropriate at the pantheon of sports. This might as well be some NASCAR race with the good ol' boys chewing tobacco and guzzling beer.

They've turned International Boulevard, in the heart of downtown Atlanta, into Coney Island without the boardwalk. There are street vendors selling everything from T-shirts to tattoos, religious healing to pre-paid phone cards.

"Praise Jesus!" urged one sidewalk preacher, standing alongside a man with an umbrella on his head who was peddling water for $3 a bottle.

"It's ice cold," he shouted at passersby.

So were the bottles going for $1 each a block or so away. Just a little friendly competition.

In the Centennial Olympic Park, visitors who chose to run through an open-air fountain in an effort to fight off the heat and humidity were advised by a public address system of some simple rules.

"Keep your shirts and shoes on," the unseen voice announced, "and enjoy the day."

The ground is covered with commemorative bricks, sold for $35 a pop. A convenient kiosk is nearby, just in case you haven't gotten around to purchasing one yet.

A parking garage advertised a $10 fee three days before the games, then went to $15 for the opening ceremonies and $20 once competition began.

Price gouging? Nah. Just a mirror of the Olympic times.

This place will never be confused with Las Ramblas, the charming downtown promenade in Barcelona.

You won't hear any complaints, though, from the people who really count--the corporate sponsors who have made this affair into a giant trade show and convention.

Nike and Reebok continue the shoe wars in the greatest sports showcase in the world, dueling daily to make their athletes available. Budweiser has a permanent street party going just outside Centennial Park, just in case somebody gets thirsty for something other than Coca-Cola. That, of course, rarely happens in Atlanta, corporate home of the soft drink.

And if you need to charge anything, just remember what the official credit card of the Olympics is.

The entrepreneurs of International Boulevard originally considered selling vending space to Fuji Film and--shhh, not so loud--Pepsi-Cola, before the International Olympic Committee pointed out that would not please title sponsors Kodak and Coke.

Hey, a buck is a buck.

Is this really what Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern games, had in mind?

For most of the hundred years since the modern games were resurrected, the Olympics were scrupulously protected from corporate interests. Athletes were scrutinized to make sure their amateur status had not been violated somewhere along the line. Now, nearly everybody is wearing somebody's logo.

This was Peter Ueberroth's vision for the future. The Olympic movement was on the ropes, staggered by terrorism, boycotts and financial fiascoes when he turned the Los Angeles Games over to the corporate world, selling them to the highest bidders, getting volunteers to do all the work and turning a profit.

We've progressed from there to Atlanta with sidewalk salesman perched on International Boulevard, selling the Olympics to anyone who will buy them.

And remember, y'all come early.

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