With the Centennial Olympic Games this summer a mere 90 days away, the hospitable but anxious first city of the South is like a frazzled hostess scrambling to set the table minutes before the Sunday company arrives -- in this case 2 million or so guests, including a virtual United Nations of dignitaries and some 15,000 journalists.
In preparation for the Olympics, Atlanta is undergoing perhaps the largest, most expensive and time-compacted urban face lift in years. And it looks like it. Think Kuwait City after the Persian Gulf War. Blocks of rubble-strewn sidewalk on streets that were scheduled to be spruced up months ago. Giant mud craters that look like asteroid impacts. Traffic crawling through a maze of detours and closed viaducts, overpasses and freeway extensions, beneath a sky filled with construction cranes. And that constant sound? It's not the Olympic March. It is jackhammers. It probably does not help that people keep asking if everything is going to be ready on time, because time is something Atlanta does not have. In the City Hall atrium and above the major downtown freeway, two digital clocks tick off the days, and hours, until the Games begin -- ready or not -- on July 19. Olympic officials use phrases such as "the drop-dead date," which conjures up images of a massive citywide coronary. Bill Campbell, Atlanta's hard-charging mayor, describes it as "a completely nonnegotiable deadline," an unfudgeable moment, he said with just a trace of a smile, that is rare in the everyday operations of municipal governance.
Billy Payne, a real estate lawyer who brought the Games here and now heads the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, promises that all the sites under his control will ready for the 10,000 athletes from 197 countries (the most ever) competing in 271 events. "We have literally transformed our city," Payne told reporters a week ago. "While they have suffered that inconvenience, while they didn't get all the tickets they wanted, while they know there is going to be traffic in place at the time of the Games, the majority of our people have remained extremely supportive." Yet for all the low-grade anxiety, the ongoing transformation is indeed awesome. Billions of dollars have been spent by federal, state and city taxpayers and corporations alike. The sports venues will almost certainly be ready, but it is going to be a squeaker. Visitors arriving at Hartsfield International Airport are still greeted by a warren of wires and cooling ducts coiling through the exposed ceilings. On the way to the overcrowded rental car desks, workers in hard hats jostle for elbow room with visitors from the International Olympic Committee. But Hartsfield officials insist they will finish the $200 million renovation by May 1. There will be a giant new atrium, crammed with 35 new shops and five additional baggage carousels, 1,100 new trees and two more parking decks to hold 25,000 more vehicles, which are completed. But for now, it still looks like work in progress. From the airport, visitors drive Interstate 85 north toward downtown past dozens of new billboards touting Olympic sponsors and welcoming athletes and fans. But as the traffic enters intown Atlanta and the "Olympic Ring," the most compact site for the Games in history, it does not feel so much like a 100-meter dash as a slow, frustrating slog -- and this is without any of the expected Olympic crowds. In 1994, city residents approved a $150 million bond issue to pay for civic infrastructure improvements, and traffic has been clogged around the Olympic construction sites almost ever since. The Spring Street viaduct, the huge new sewer lines, is still being completed. City officials say they are praying for plenty of sun. The wet fall and winter held up construction at many sites and now "the float," the fudge factor traditionally built into construction timetables, is gone. To deal with the traffic, the federal government has contributed to a state-of-the-art, high-tech traffic management system, which monitors flow and advises motorists via electronic signs and special radio broadcasts on optimal routing. It began to operate last week. Price tag: $138 million. But traffic is still expected to be extremely heavy. Atlanta's transit system has been pulling seats out of trains to increase capacity. Employers are encouraging some downtown workers to operate out of their houses during the 17 days of the Games. BellSouth, in a bid to install thousands of phone lines for home offices, is running an ad that asks, "How will your employees get to work during the Olympics when they can't even get to work now?" Some companies are offering incentives for employees to arrive before dawn to avoid the traffic jams. Within the Olympic Ring the big-ticket item is the new $232 million Olympic Stadium, next door to the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where the Atlanta Braves play. After the Games, the old Braves stadium will be torn down and turned into parking and parkland and the team will move into the Olympic Stadium. Today, the stadium still looks like a partially assembled beehive, covered with welders. It was originally scheduled for completion last fall. The Olympic cauldron, which will hold the flame that represents the Games, will not be installed until June. Across the freeway, in front of CNN headquarters, the Olympic Centennial Park is an attempt to give a city without a center a new focus. There will be an Olympic fountain, "with computer-controlled choreographed water displays with light and sound effects," according to its creators. But right now there is enough mud to make a large delegation of hogs happy. Helicopters have been used to dry it out. Scheduled to open in May, Centennial Park, which may host 200,000 visitors a day, is now set to be completed six days before the Games begin. Workers literally will be stamping down the sod as the first athletes hit town. But take heart. "We are now on track for completion," said Khalil Johnson, a spokesman for the Georgia World Congress Center, which is spending $55 million on the park. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the building boom are Atlanta's universities, whose athletic arenas are being transformed into world-class facilities. Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College are each getting a new stadium, at a cost of $36 million for both. At Georgia Tech, a new $21 million Aquatic Center will boast a solar-paneled roof, anti-glare lighting, and a special "sparger system," which will create small bubbles to soften a diver's entry into the fluffy water. At Georgia State University, new, sophisticated "air handlers" will stabilize the indoor auditorium atmosphere for badminton shuttlecocks. "If we had to do it tomorrow we wouldn't be ready," said David Arnold, a spokesman for Georgia Tech. "But certainly by July and for the dry runs before that." He thinks it will be worth the wait. "There is no pool like it anywhere," said Arnold, who reports that it may be one of the "fastest" pools ever built because of its ability to dampen surface turbulence and other resistance. For the athletes, eight villages are being prepared around the region, including the one at Georgia Tech that Olympic officials say is the largest in the history of the Games.
When finished -- in the next few weeks, officials hope -- it will include 17 new apartment buildings and 33 renovated fraternity and sorority houses, enough to house 15,000 athletes and coaches, a renovation that cost $193 million. The Village at Georgia Tech will offer 24-hour-a-day religious services for Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Christians. There will also be a movie theater, bowling alley, dry cleaner, disco, hair salon, video arcade and World Wide Web Pavilion "where athletes can surf the Internet." And, of course, it will be the first fully air-conditioned Olympic Village. In midsummer, muggy Atlanta can make the Sudan feel cool. Some Atlanta construction projects, however, have fallen completely off the boards. The infamous Techwood Homes, one of the oldest and most seriously dilapidated public housing projects in the nation, was to be rebuilt by the Olympics to house athletes and then, once they leave, to house the poor again. But it has been delayed and will open two years from now. Along with Techwood Homes, dozens of other "frills" will also be jettisoned because of the time crunch, though Olympics officials will not yet say exactly what frills will be shelved. Olympic officials say that the Games are not just important for Atlanta but also for the entire South, which suffers from decades-old misconceptions in some quarters as a sleepy, lazy, dumb place. Atlanta is a boom town with a growth rate only rivaled by Las Vegas, and its residents hope the Olympics will crush that misconception. Mayor Campbell calls the Games a historic opportunity, a moment of intense pride, for the South, for Atlanta and for African Americans, who consider this city a "black mecca." There will be yachting in Savannah, Ga.; archery at Stone Mountain north of Atlanta; whitewater slalom in Tennessee; soccer in Miami, Birmingham, Orlando and Washington, D.C. "There is a great regional pride in these games," Campbell said, in a part of the country that has "endured the taunts and cynicism of those snobs who look down on anyone who is not at the opera in New York." For the record, opera is not an Olympic event, but that doesn't mean a visitor will miss it. The Olympic Arts Festival, to run concurrently with the Games, will be the largest multidisciplinary arts assemblage in the South. And the Atlanta Opera will perform George and Ira Gershwins' "Of Thee I Sing."
CAPTION: Some of the more than 700 trees being planted at the downtown Olympic Centennial Park, now set to open only six days before the Games begin on July 19.
CAPTION: Behind schedule is the $232 million Olympic Stadium, left, which was supposed to be finished last fall. It will become home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team after the Games. At right, construction is underway at the bicycle race arena.