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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS / The Afterglow

Atlanta Claims Its Place in Sun

Olympics: Biggest-ever Games leave city with a feeling of pride.


ATLANTA — The last guests have straggled home and Atlanta's marathon coming-out bash--that's the Olympics to y'all--finally has wound down. And can't we just keep the lights down for a while until we work through this hangover?

Six years in the making, the Games of the XXVI Olympiad--once they finally got here--were everything Atlanta desired--and feared. The world turned its gaze on this brash young city that had been furiously turning backflips, trying to get everybody's attention. And then, when folks started looking, the acrobat slipped.

Atlanta clearly wasn't ready--not for the monster the Olympics have become. The amazing thing is, other than the news media and some International Olympic Committee members, people seemed to be having too much fun to notice.

For 17 days, downtown was turned into a rollicking, sweaty street party. It was tacky as all get out, with inflatable Gumbies, strolling Elvises and black and white Scarlett O'Hara clones posing for pictures.

"It's a little bit different than I expected," said Richard King, who brought his wife and two children from Wilmington, N.C. "There's a lot more of a carnival atmosphere."

But his final verdict: "It's wonderful. We're having a great time."

In fact, despite the bomb, despite the traffic snarls, despite a subway system bursting at the seams and other logistic and technological snafus, it was hard to find people on the street who didn't consider the Atlanta Games a howling success.

Some Atlantans are embarrassed by all the hawkers and the commercial clutter. But the overwhelming feeling seems to be pride that the city pulled it off and that people from around the world found pleasure in a downtown that locals had all but abandoned.

To be sure, the Atlanta that visitors saw was not the one residents are used to. The infusion of millions of pedestrian fun-seekers has a way of transforming a streetscape all by itself. To help things along, Olympic organizers--with the aid of business leaders and the state--built a new 21-acre park that is expected to become the centerpiece of a newly reconfigured downtown.

Two billion dollars in public and private funds were spent in getting the city ready. Entire blocks of buildings were rehabilitated and turned into hospitality sites, housing and exhibition and commercial space. More than 90 pieces of artwork--two-thirds of them permanent--have been installed throughout the city. And plans have been drawn to try to harness the energy of the Olympics to continue the transformation of downtown, now that the Games are over.

"The transformation that has taken place in the last 18 months was just amazing," said Robert Foster, a retired administrator for the Centers for Disease Control. He and his wife Ethel, non-Games-goers who went downtown to bask in the glory--proclaimed the Games "an absolute success."

"They said it couldn't happen," said Ethel, as a jubilant street party swirled around her in Centennial Olympic Park. "It's incredible!"

Like many locals, the Fosters bristled at criticism that their city had overextended itself, that it's just a small town straining too hard to get into the big leagues. Ethel Foster accused the media of "whining" about transportation and technological glitches that affected journalists to a far greater extent than the public at large.

"Grin and bear it," she said. "So your bus is late--so what?"

Said Robert Foster of the national and international journalists who have trashed his town, calling the Atlanta Games the most unorganized ever, "In my opinion, they came in with a bias. They were saying those Southern hicks can't pull this thing off. When they couldn't find anything to criticize, they manufactured something. To me they're picking at nits."

Asked last week for an assessment of the Games, A.D. Frazier, chief operating officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, acknowledged that the technological problems--which prevented journalists from getting timely and accurate information on events--were a disappointment.

Organizers expected the masses of people to overwhelm transportation systems in the early going, he said, adding that adjustments were made in the early days that corrected the problems.

"It's a trial by fire," said Sharon Wallace, a spokeswoman for the organizing committee. "You can get your plans in place, your people in place, but until you get in a real-time situation, you don't know what will happen."

Said Frazier: "In the main, I think things have gone remarkable well."

He called the sea of humanity that flooded downtown streets "breathtaking."

And the opinion in the streets seemed to be overwhelmingly favorable.

"Everybody I have talked to has enjoyed the Olympics," said Susan Moss, who works at Macy's downtown. "It has been fun. It is going to be a letdown when this is over."

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