By Sarah Dylla, Olympic and Paralympic Exhibition Curator
Our new exhibition Atlanta '96: Shaping an Olympic and Paralympic City opens on September 18—the 30th anniversary of the International Olympic Committee's announcement of Atlanta's win. With the Tokyo Games postponed until 2021, we thought we would step in and carry the torch for a while.
Over the next few months, Atlanta History Center will explore aspects of our city’s Olympic and Paralympic history, from campaign trail to closing ceremony and everything in between. Follow along as we explore how Atlanta readied itself to join the storied club of Olympic hosts.
During the Olympic Games, hosts invite the world into their cities. But what happens after the world leaves and at what cost to the community?
In 1990, with the prospect of the Olympic Games on the horizon, Atlanta entered a construction phase. As with other host cities across the globe, Atlanta began to plan to accommodate new stadiums, thousands of athletes, and millions of visitors. The sites that were built, razed, altered, or planned in the lead up to the Games had long-term impact on our city’s landscape and its residents, including the most vulnerable.
As the spectacle of the Games has evolved over time, so have host city preparation measures. In the six years between the selection of Atlanta as host and the Opening Ceremony of the Games, there was an unrelenting push to locate or build facilities for specialized events. Organizers faced pressure for their work to last beyond the two weeks of pomp, circumstance, and sportsmanship.
The result of this construction and preparation—the physical alterations to the landscape, the new stock of facilities, the revitalization of infrastructure, the new public spaces, and the impact on neighborhoods—is the most noticeable legacy of hosting the Olympic Games.
Olympic-related urban transformations are apparent as early as 1908. White City Stadium, constructed in the farmlands of greater London between 1907 and 1908, was the first major facility built specifically for an Olympic Games. In these early Games, many events (track and field, cycling, and archery for example) took place in a single stadium or on multi-purpose playing fields. Additional temporary buildings became common at Games hosted in association with world’s fairs. Olympic Village construction became common by the 1920s. Widespread urban development, however, was not part of the Olympic preparation model until the latter half of the 20th century. By that time, the International Olympic Committee started to change its stance on profits and cities across the globe prioritized urban renewal.
As the world moved on from post-war austerity, the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and 1964 in Tokyo set major milestones for Games-related urban transformation. Leaders in these Olympic host cities invested in urban improvements, infrastructure development, and facility construction projects that reintroduced the cities to the global economic stage after the second World War. Hosts throughout the late 1960s and 1970s followed this lead. Growing pushback from the public about the cost of increasingly elaborate Games preparations reached a peak after the 1976 Games in Montreal accrued extreme debt for the city. In 1984, Los Angeles reacted by committing to host the Games only in existing venues across the city, using limited public money. The profit generated from the 1984 Games enticed cities back to the prospect of hosting, even if they had less existing infrastructure.
And so, the use of Olympic plans for urban transformation continued and set precedents in Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992. Both used broad Olympic-related urban redevelopment projects to accelerate long-term plans, reshape their identity, and spur economic development. In this way, Games preparation continued intersecting with urban renewal through the 1990s to the present. Expansive stadiums and the increasing number of required facilities meant that added space was necessary to accommodate the Games. The increasing profile and media coverage of the Games meant growing attention was directed to the impact on not just local business and the urban landscape, but host city residents as well. In the host cities of the 1960s to today, housing for poor populations and historic neighborhoods regularly suffer in the path of these goals.
Atlanta entered the Olympic preparation race with fewer facilities than Los Angeles and without the natural and architectural attractions of Barcelona. Still, Atlanta’s goals combined those of the previous Games: raising the city’s international profile and improving the urban landscape, while at the same time not overspending. The organizers faced many similar challenges of past host cities and attempted to draw from past solutions for accommodating the events and readying the city for the spotlight. The changes to the city’s urban fabric and the long-term impact on residents' lives and the demographics of downtown Atlanta and intown neighborhoods also mirror the stories of fellow hosts.
For decades prior to its Olympic bid, Atlanta worked to expand transportation infrastructure, build major facilities for entertainment, and entice professional sports teams, convention bookings, and new corporate headquarters into the city. Atlanta’s urban core had been the site for a number of civic projects, including I-75, I-85, and I-20 in the interstate highway system beginning in the 1950s, the Atlanta Civic Center and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the 1960s, and Omni Coliseum and surrounding business-centered developments in the 1970s. With many of these projects, the impact was felt by longstanding Black and low-income communities. The community of Buttermilk Bottom was razed to construct the Civic Center. Washington-Rawson neighborhood, in the Summerhill area was demolished for highway and later stadium plans. By the time of the bid in the late 1980s, Atlanta had multiple professional sports venues, convention centers, and exhibition halls, including the planned Georgia Dome. This urban growth, decades in the making, left changed neighborhoods and disrupted lives in its wake, yet boosted the city’s image and economy. Once Atlanta was selected to host, preparations for the Games accelerated the city's pace of growth and took it from a national to a global level.
From early in the bid process, Atlanta’s Olympic organizers identified sites for most Games activities within a 3-mile wide area centered on the city’s urban core, known as the Olympic Ring. During the Games, the ring encircled seven previously existing venues, four newly constructed ones, a new Olympic Village complex, and a new park in the central business district. Existing venues used for the Games included Georgia World Congress Center, Omni Coliseum, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and sites on the campuses of Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University Center colleges. Paralympic Games secured other existing event spaces as well, including facilities on Emory University, Mercer University, and Atlanta Metropolitan College’s campuses and in the Marriot Marquis.
Centennial Olympic Park and Centennial Olympic Stadium are Atlanta’s signature Games constructions. Both projects resulted in lasting change to Atlanta’s urban fabric.
With Olympic events secured in the Georgia World Congress Center, Omni Coliseum, and on the Georgia Tech campus, a large section of the city’s industrial and aging downtown was at the center of the Olympic Ring. Inspired by the public gathering spaces of previous Olympic hosts, Atlanta’s Olympic leaders raised support to plan Centennial Olympic Park. A 20+ acre urban greenspace, the park was the solution to reinvent the section of downtown south of Techwood and Clark Howell Homes public housing and to the north and east of the Georgia World Congress Center in advance of the Games and spur change for the downtown area. Filled will underused warehouses, open lots, small businesses, and those experiencing homelessness, this section of the urban core had been the focus of decades-long discussions between city and business leaders and development advocates about how to make the central business district more attractive to new industry, tourism, and corporate sectors.
Throughout the Olympic planning process, Atlanta’s city leaders and Olympic organizers discussed ideas of aligning the long-avoided renovation of Atlanta’s majority Black public housing, situated between the venues on Georgia Tech’s campus and the venues downtown, with Olympic preparations. Early ideas included renovating the properties and using them temporarily for Olympic Village dormitories. Yet planning was disputed and complicated. Finally, with the Atlanta Housing Authority under new direction, the authority and private developers secured an early federal HOPE VI grant and initiated new plans to completely replace Techwood and Clark Howell Homes, and three other neighborhoods, with a replicable model of mixed-income housing. During these negotiations, tenants received mixed notifications about the future of their housing, and many left prior to the development decisions due to the uncertainty. The eventual replacement did not accommodate all original tenants. And the first phase of the new Centennial Place housing opened on the site of the old complexes, with the Olympic Village dormitories across the street and Centennial Olympic Park just to the south, in time for the ’96 Games.
A combination of sources funded the park’s construction: foundation gifts, state money, corporate donations, and money raised by the Olympic organizers through a commemorative brick sales program. During the Games, the park served as a public space for attendees, locals, and athletes. In the time since, Centennial Olympic Park has prompted additional investments in Atlanta’s downtown and tourism industry. Hotels and attractions have developed along the park’s edges, including Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Photos and footage of the park are regularly featured in promotions for the city. Its proximity to Mercedes-Benz Stadium continues to connect the area to major events. In advance of the 2019 Super Bowl, the park received its most recent renovation, closing off the bisecting street, improving landscaping, and adding public art. The story of the park highlights the longstanding push for economic development in the city’s urban core.
Atlanta's Olympic organizers scouted a location adjacent to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the area of Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and Peoplestown neighborhoods for Centennial Olympic Stadium. Summerhill was established in 1865 due to restrictions on where Black residents could live in Atlanta. At that time, its residents were formerly enslaved people and much of the city’s Jewish population. Throughout its history, residents of the Summerhill neighborhood were subject to inequities in public services and investment, top-down urban planning, and violent policing practices, which prompted a series of riots in 1966. But the neighborhood also has a history of protest and citizen-led change. The proposed location reignited distrust from long-time residents who had seen a number of development projects negatively affect their neighborhood. In the 1950s and 1960s, the interstates laid dividing lines and razed residential land. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium paved over blocks of housing and urban renewal efforts brought numerous neighborhood changes from city officials.
From the initial location announcement until long after construction began, a group of community activists called Atlanta Neighbors United For Fairness (ANUFF)and organized by Ethel Mae Matthews out of Emmaus House, fought the plans. They were unable to influence the decision process and by 1993 Olympic stadium construction was announced for a large swath of paved parking lots directly to the south of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. ANUFF and engaged neighbors demonstrated through the groundbreaking event and continued to advocate for community benefits and labor agreements long after.
Stadium plans were formulated in partnership with the Atlanta Braves. The facility was planned to exist as an Olympic track-sized venue only temporarily. After the close of the Games, it was renovated into a baseball facility. Then, 30-year-old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was demolished, and the Braves moved into their new home, Turner Field. The lifespan of the Olympic-era stadium continues today under Georgia State University’s ownership as their football field, Center Parc Credit Union Stadium.
The ’96 Games were the first hosted on U.S. soil since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990). The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability, with a major part of the law tackling barriers to public architecture for disabled people. It mandated that the architecture of sites, such as places of lodging, dining, education, and recreation, be constructed so that individuals of all abilities could have full and equal enjoyment of the services held within. New facilities built after July 1992 had to consider a variety of perspectives, previously not mandatory in design and construction.
With this new law in place, construction of Centennial Olympic Stadium, modifications to the Georgia Dome, and the later retrofitting of the stadium to Turner Field became important markers in the process of turning the law into practice. Construction of Centennial Olympic Stadium highlighted many of the learning curves necessary to build compliant sports venues, including wheelchair sightlines and seating. Paralympic affiliates in Atlanta and nationally led many of the efforts to achieve compliance.
Though more common in recent Games, such as London in 2012, some of Atlanta’s Olympic venues and facilities were temporary, constructed to last only the duration of the Games. Viewers and attendees at the ’96 Games remember the tents, pop-up stages, and concession stands in and around Centennial Olympic Park. Temporary structures served other purposes as well. With specialized venues required for Olympic sports, cities often cannot develop plans to sustain long-term use. Temporary facilities have been used by host cities to reduce the likelihood of abandonment after the Games.
The cycling velodrome along with the archery range at Stone Mountain were assembled just for the duration of the Games. The velodrome track was disassembled after and sold to a training center in Québec, Canada, where it is in use today. The site of these two facilities is now a wooded trail through a bird habitat in Stone Mountain Park.
Temporary facilities were also set up on the grounds of the Olympic Village dormitories to provide services to athletes and Olympic family. There was a full-service McDonald’s restaurant in one tent and IBM erected a colorful internet café in another tent, called the Surf Shack. Burgeoning digital technology of the mid-1990s presented Games organizers with many new ideas for Games organization, athlete accommodations, and customer service. In the Surf Shack, athletes were encouraged to engage with technology and were provided individual email accounts for fan mail and customizable webpages. Internet-enabled information kiosks also temporarily dotted the central area of the Olympic Ring, providing access to daily Games schedules, ticketing, maps, and athlete information.
Despite the new construction, reused facilities, and temporary venues, the density of Atlanta’s urban core did not allow enough space for all Olympic and Paralympic sports. Games organizers secured use of other venues across Georgia, in three other states, and Washington, D.C. To accommodate events, such as sailing and equestrian sports, towns in the metro Atlanta area and locations within a few hours’ drive bid to be selected as sites of specialty venues.
Federal funding supported the construction of a specialized whitewater sporting venue in Ducktown, Tennessee. The equestrian venue was constructed in Conyers, Georgia. Lake Lanier served as a perfect site for rowing and sprint canoeing events. A shooting range and a beach park for the new Olympic sport of beach volleyball were fashioned south of the city. And a large tennis venue was constructed near Stone Mountain, the only venue from '96 abandoned since the Games. Five of the specialized venues built outside of the Olympic Ring continue operations aligned with their original purposes.
In recent years, media outlets, researchers, and artists are among those who have tracked the afterlives of Olympic and Paralympic venues in cities. Photographers of “The Olympic City” project document past host cities and the vestiges of Olympic construction around the world. Focusing on Atlanta, you can take a self-guided tour through the sites and venues of ’96. As discussions about more sustainable, affordable, and inclusive planning for Games become more prevalent, reports of Olympic preparations, impact of construction on residents, and the afterlives of facilities in past host cities are often revisited.
In Atlanta, the organizers’ focus on post-Games plans for venues, use of shared cost-funding models, and employment of many local architecture and engineering firms over more costly designers saved money and avoided potential abandonment. When comparing the physical legacies of Atlanta's venues with the “white elephants” of other Olympic cities, the city has fared well. Yet the location of the ‘96 Games in the geographic core of the city put Olympic plans in conflict with some of Atlanta’s vulnerable populations. The construction negatively impacted the neighborhood of Summerhill, some residents of public housing, and the city’s homeless populations, as decision-making replicated the top-down model typical of many big urban change initiatives of the past and present. Every four years, the question of how to get it right is revisited. How can the Games benefit all residents of the host city? Some pose the idea of always hosting them in the same city. Some talk about scaling back the spectacle.
Our newest exhibition, opening on September 18, places the ’96 Games in the context of Atlanta’s history of civic projects and promotion, prompting the visitor to consider how they can change their community and prompting ideas about how Atlanta might change in the future.
Major support of this exhibition has been generously provided by the James M. Cox Foundation, Marine and John Fentener van Vlissingen, Bank of America, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company, Martha and Billy Payne, The UPS Foundation, Martie and Dennis Zakas, and The Rich Foundation.