Looking back, Atlanta Olympics was a mess

Published 12:32 pm Saturday, August 6, 2011

The 15th anniversary of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games has come and gone with barely a whimper. Looking back, the Olympic Games were not the City of Atlanta’s finest hours—or days. They were given a unique gift and didn’t know what to do with it. I know. I was managing director—communications and government relations for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games—and had a front row seat to all the action.

The City of Atlanta blew the opportunity to show itself to the world as a great international city. For that you can thank a city government more concerned about making a buck off the games than in helping us stage them, a timid business community afraid to confront City Hall bullies and a local media totally out of its element. Covering a Super Bowl is one thing. The Centennial Olympics was a Super Bowl a day for 18 days. The media totally underestimated the enormity of the Centennial Olympic Games and overestimated its ability to adequately cover them.

I should have known there was going to be a problem getting Atlanta to understand the magnificent opportunity it had to showcase itself to the world when the city’s marketing director proposed beaming ads off the moon and sending stray dogs around the city with advertising messages attached. This, of course, is exactly the kind of image the city needed from its image-makers. The only thing missing was to promote a tractor pull as an Olympic event.

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Local reporters, anxious to impress their national and international colleagues that they could run in Olympic circles, spent most of their time obsessing over such weighty matters as our woebegone mascot, Izzy, and trying to rain on CEO Billy Payne’s parade of enthusiasm. They paid scant attention to the city itself. I told the reporters repeatedly that the Games were going to do better than the city. They didn’t listen.

It was this kind of neglect that allowed then-Mayor Bill Campbell’s shameless scheme to cover downtown Atlanta with street vendors and clog Atlanta’s streets during the Games. The media blamed Olympic planners for the traffic tie-ups. I blame them for not listening to what I told them.

While we were raising $1.7 billion privately and indemnifying Malfunction Junction from any tax liability for staging the Games, the city inexplicably began its own sponsorship campaign, trying to sign up the competitors of our sponsors and jeopardizing our efforts to privately fund the Games. I would have been more comfortable had the city geniuses just sold ads on the moon.

Despite an incompetent city government, a local news media that wasn’t up to the task and a business community devoid of strong local leadership, despite special interest groups that came out of the woodwork trying to hold us hostage and, yes, despite the horrors of the Olympic Park bombing, I have had people all over the country tell me these past 15 years that they still cherish being a part of the unique experience of the Centennial Olympic Games. I am satisfied the committee did its job. I can’t say the same for the city.

Fast forward to today. The Atlanta school system is in shambles, thanks to a cheating scandal that seems to have implicated some of the business community. The perception of crime hangs over Atlanta like a cloud. There are water woes. Traffic is a mess. The local newspaper left the city and moved to the suburbs. Bill Campbell would probably have welcomed the opportunity to go with them. He ended up in the federal pokey after being convicted of tax evasion.

The city’s response? A public relations campaign, of course. Called “City Lights, Southern Nights,” the campaign tanked not long after its vaunted unveiling and for good reason. It was like putting curtains on an outhouse. In the future, maybe Atlanta should first take a shot at curing its ills before blowing their PR horn. Just a thought.

The Summer Games have subsequently been held in Sydney, Australia; Athens, Greece and Beijing, China. London gets its day in the world spotlight next year. I am not an Olympic junkie and haven’t paid much attention to the Games since I booked this gig as a syndicated newspaper columnist some 14 years ago. All I know is that when the City ofAtlanta had an opportunity in 1996 to show the world they were the “Next Great City,” they couldn’t walk their talk. Fifteen years later, they still can’t.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.