Atlanta Games’ venues left some lessons for Boston
ATLANTA — The aquatic center where American swimmer Amy Van Dyken won four Olympic gold medals is noisy with amateur divers bouncing off clattering springboards, before a national competition.
Across town, at the stadium where the palsied hands of Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996, the hometown Atlanta Braves are looking for back-to-back wins, before 26,000 fans.
Twenty miles outside the city, however, scraggly weeds grow thigh-high on the abandoned court where tennis stars Andre Agassi and Lindsay Davenport each earned gold for the United States.
These and a dozen other former Olympic venues scattered across Greater Atlanta hold lessons for Boston — of what worked and what can go wrong — as the city flirts with a bid for the 2024 Summer Games.
Olympics are measured by their legacies, which along with the gold medal moments can include leftover sports venues that become white elephants once the Olympic flame is put out.
“In every city you went — Montreal, Seoul — there was a big empty stadium sitting there,” said Dick Yarbrough, a managing director for the 1996 Games, recalling Atlanta’s Olympic preparations. “We built things for their afterlives, and then retrofit them for the Games.”
One of the most successful is the aquatic center. Atlanta’s Olympic organizers privately raised $21 million to build the venue, which the Georgia Institute of Technology took over after the Games and massively expanded into what is now one of the country’s “coolest college recreation centers,” as ranked this year by Men’s Health magazine.
The deserted Stone Mountain Tennis Center is the opposite kind of post-Olympic legacy, which Atlanta generally avoided. The center is encircled by a barbed fence and plastered with No Trespassing signs. Vandals have looted copper wires and pipes. The roughly $20 million complex could not make it as a tennis facility after the Games, and no redevelopment plan has yet gotten off the ground.
The Atlanta Olympics of 1996 are not a perfect comparison for what a Boston Olympic bid would face, but Atlanta may be the best available model for the principal reason of cost, and who pays.
Unlike most central governments, the US federal government offers only limited financial support to organize and run the world’s largest sporting competition. Teary athletes draped in the Stars and Stripes may stir pride in the USA, but the Olympics, after all, is a private event.
Atlanta’s Olympic organizers knew their only chance of rousing public support was to promise to fund the Games privately, as Los Angeles did in 1984. The only problem: The Atlanta team had no clue how to pull it off.
“Our mouths and intentions were way ahead of . . . how we were going to do it,” confessed Billy Payne, the genial Atlanta lawyer and former college football star who ran the ’96 Games and who is the person most responsible for bringing them to Georgia.
The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games — a private, nonprofit corporation led by Payne — renovated a number of existing sports venues and built an Olympic stadium, a cycling velodrome, the aquatic center, and a village to house athletes and trainers — all things Boston would have to do.
In the end, the Atlanta committee broke even, privately raising $1.7 billion, including about $400 million for construction, mostly from broadcast rights, ticket sales, and corporate sponsorships. In addition, local colleges contributed tens of millions toward the buildings they would inherit after the Games, the federal government provided security and advanced some transportation and housing grants, and the city issued bonds to pay for infrastructure.
Total spending on the Atlanta Games is estimated to have been about $3 billion, according to a 2001 academic analysis, “Olympic Dreams — The Impact of Mega-events on Local Politics.”
Even accounting for inflation, which would bring the figure to about $4.5 billion, it’s a fraction of the estimated $50 billion Russia spent on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
“In the United States it’s doable,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management who studies the Olympics at George Washington University, referring to a privately financed Olympic Games. “I wouldn’t be saying this in other countries, but we don’t have to spend all of our money on infrastructure the city should have had in the first place.”
Supporters and detractors of the Atlanta Games agree the Olympics were a catalyst for development. But the value of that development is still being debated 18 years later.
“It was the best thing that we ever could have done at the time that we did it,” said former congressman and US ambassador Andrew Young, now 82, who was mayor of Atlanta when the city launched its Olympic bid. “It was a good experience because it united the city behind a long-range idea.”
On the other hand, antipoverty advocate Anita Beaty, director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, said an Olympic building-boom “just steamrolled over Atlanta and nothing has been the same since.” The city decimated its public housing stock in the building craze, she said, and priced many low-income people out of their neighborhoods. She said taxpayers have paid to maintain sports venues inherited by local government after the Olympics.
Leaders of the Boston Olympic bid have outlined a financing strategy similar to Atlanta’s, promising a privately financed Olympic Games that would rely on public infrastructure improvements and partnerships with colleges and universities.
Intentionally or not, the structure of the nascent Boston Olympic movement also resembles the early days of the Atlanta effort, which began with a small group of prominent people, not easily discouraged.
Suffolk Construction chief John Fish is the public face of the effort in Boston, which made the US Olympic Committee’s short list of potential 2024 host cities, along with Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
In Atlanta, Payne was the front man. His story is famous in Georgia:
It was 1987. Payne, then 39, successful and restless, having just led a fund-raising drive for a new sanctuary at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in the Atlanta suburbs, was invited to address the congregation.
“I’m looking down at my church, a thousand people looking back,” Payne recalled in a Globe interview. “The very same people who for the last three years I had revisited countless times to say, ‘You know that $10,000 you pledged? I need $15,000 now.’
“People had been like, ‘Oh God, Billy’s coming, lock the door.’ But as I’m looking down from the pulpit, these radiating smiles were coming back at me. The people who had complained the most were so proud of the ultimate manifestation of this effort, as we dedicated this sanctuary.”
Driving home Payne told his wife: “We’ve got to think of something else that brings that many people together in this common sense of celebration.”
At the time, the United States had hosted only three Summer Olympics: St. Louis in 1904, and Los Angeles in 1932 and 1984. Payne decided: Let’s bring the first Olympics to the American South.
The popular first impression in Atlanta: Wow, what a stupid idea.
“Every Olympic bid needs a spear-catcher, somebody like me in that position, who takes on all the incoming negativism and nevertheless keeps the idea alive,” said Payne, now chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters.
If the idea survives long enough, the opportunity to present your city and state to the world “is a compelling force that ultimately will capture the hearts of just about everybody,” Payne said.
Atlanta won the Games over Toronto; Melbourne, Australia; Manchester, England; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; and the early frontrunner, Athens.
The 1996 Games would be criticized for its ho-hum architecture, but the Atlanta group was more interested in function, cost savings, and post-Olympic life.
The group privately raised about $200 million to build an 85,000-seat Olympic stadium, turned over to the city as a gift.
The torch-lighting by Ali, a gold-medal boxer in 1960 who is now battling Parkinson’s disease, was one of the great lump-in-your-throat moments of any Olympics. US sprinters Michael Johnson and Gail Devers blazed to gold medals in the stadium. American Carl Lewis won the long jump for the fourth Olympics in a row.
The stadium was not a perfect oval, because it was designed for a specific use after the Games. Part of the structure was later lopped off, and the building was converted to a 50,000-seat baseball park. Renamed Turner Field, it has been home to the Atlanta Braves since 1997.
The Braves will abandon the ballpark after the 2016 or 2017 seasons for a new stadium in the suburbs, and Turner Field may be knocked down and redeveloped. This has saddened many Atlantans, who considered a baseball stadium built without taxpayer money one of the better outcomes of the Games.
Two miles north of the stadium, Centennial Olympic Park lives on as probably the most influential development of the 1996 Games, though no competitions were held there. Payne came up with the idea to convert blocks of downtown warehouses into a “town square” for the Games, as a gathering space and place for entertainment. This is where a domestic terrorist named Eric Rudolph planted a bomb during the ‘96 Olympics. The blast caused two deaths and wounded more than 100 people, though the Games went on.
The manicured Olympic Park has grown into Atlanta’s version of the Boston Common or the Greenway. On hot summer days — which seems like every summer day in Georgia — children in bathing suits run screaming through water spouts at the park’s Fountain of Rings, patterned after the Olympic symbol. Tourist attractions have cropped up across the park, such as the World of Coca-Cola, a hokey homage to the Atlanta-based beverage giant, the Georgia Aquarium, and a new civil rights museum — the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
“Centennial Olympic Park has fostered a development downtown unlike anything we could have imagined,” said Yarbrough. “That was Billy’s greatest idea.”
The Georgia World Congress Center, a pre-existing convention facility next to the park, hosted smaller Olympic events in 1996, such as fencing, judo, handball, ping pong, weightlifting, and wrestling, without a great deal of investment.
The Georgia Tech campus a mile to the north, however, underwent an overhaul, said G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, who was president of Georgia Tech during the 1996 Olympics.
Tech’s mid-town campus essentially became the Olympic Village for 16,000 athletes and trainers, in addition to hosting several sporting events.
Thousands of campus housing units were built at Georgia Tech and Georgia State University to house the athletes. The $241 million cost was shared by the Atlanta Olympic committee, which privately raised $47 million for that project, and the University System of Georgia, which issued bonds to pay for the rest, according to a 1997 analysis of the Atlanta Games published in the Journal of the American Planning Association.
“We built very [high-end] housing for the students and that was a big plus for Georgia Tech,” said Clough, in a Globe interview. “You could say it was due to the Olympics, and it was. But at the same time Georgia Tech borrowed quite a bit of money to ensure that post-Olympics we would really have something lasting for the intuition, and that has made a big difference on the campus.”
Near the city airport, the Atlanta Olympic committee spent $17 million on the Wolf Creek Shooting Complex, for sharp-shooting competitions. County taxpayers lost money on the high-tech venue after the Games, and the range was converted to a police and fire training center. The most obvious remnants of the Olympics are the world flags hanging from a high metal ceiling.
Stone Mountain Park, about 20 miles outside Atlanta, hosted archery and a very fast temporary outdoor velodrome, on which 21 Olympic cycling records were set. The velodrome was sold to the Disney company and moved.
The bald forehead of Stone Mountain, a popular day-hiking destination for Atlantans, rises above the abandoned tennis center. There was not enough demand for court time to sustain the facility after the Olympics, said Jim Brooks, director of the Evermore Community Improvement District, which is looking for ways to reuse the state-owned complex.
The venue has been dark since a 2005 concert by singer Roberta Flack, he said. The price tag to repair damage from neglect and vandalism is about $1 million.
“We continue to believe there is a higher and better use for the facility than to implode it,” Brooks said.
An hour northeast of Atlanta, the Lake Lanier Rowing Center, built by the Atlanta Olympic committee for $10 million, probably looks more like it did during the Games than any other venue. The rowing center is spread over a small peninsula on the picturesque lake.
Two local rowing clubs use the Olympic boathouses and docks. Olympic murals and the tiered seating for finish line judges have been preserved in a four-story concrete tower.
The 2014 USA Canoe/Kayak Sprint National Championships were held last week at the venue, but supporters believe the site has been vastly underused.
Mimi Collins, chairwoman of a nonprofit group overseeing upgrades to the Olympic facility and a public park at the site, said city and county governments recently agreed to provide $300,000 to revamp the property, which is showing its age after years of minimal upkeep. The group wants the site to be busier, with more competitions and recreational water sports, concerts, and events.
Young, the former mayor, whose credibility and early support kept Billy Payne’s idea alive, said Atlanta was successful because it went into the Games with the right intentions.
“We couldn’t spend money like London or Moscow or anybody else,” Young said. “We didn’t use the Olympics to rebuild the city, as Greece had to do. We had the single-minded purpose to put on the best Olympic Games that we could offer the world.