ATLANTA — Amid new concerns of safety and security after the crash of a TWA jumbo jet, Atlanta is poised for the biggest party in its history.
The Opening Ceremonies of the Centennial Olympic Games, staged in the city's new oval stadium this evening, will kick off a 17-day extravaganza that includes 10,000 athletes from 197 countries, 2 million spectators, and 3.5 billion television viewers.
After six years of primping and preening, it appears Atlanta is finally ready. The jackhammers are quiet, the streets have been paved, the flowers planted, and the sidewalks scrubbed.
Now the real test begins: Can the city handle the hordes, and what impression will it leave on its visitors? The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games has sold 8 million of its 11 million tickets - more than any other Games.
Everything from traffic to security will be scrutinized. One topic on many people's minds is the heat. Though the past week saw temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, Mother Nature has turned it up a few degrees just in time for the start of the Games: Today the thermometer is projected to hover around 96 - with humidity.
"We knew it was going to be hot, but it's hard when you're not used to it," says Carl Hansson, a visitor from Sweden, who fanned himself as he sat under a tree in Centennial Olympic Park.
The chromium sun isn't the only thing Olympic organizers wish would diminish. Traffic, which often bedevils drivers on normal days, is expected to grow exponentially worse during the Games. Organizers are hoping a repeat of the 1984 summer Games in Los Angeles is played out, when fewer cars navigated streets than on a normal day.
But some say Atlanta's highway system is incapable of absorbing as much traffic as Los Angeles's. As one official put it: It's like taking 300,000 people who already live here and then having 4 million more coming through the city.
Some Atlanta-based companies have attempted to do their part to help ease car congestion by staggering workers' schedules or allowing employees to telecommute. "I had the chance to go to Washington, D.C., for my company, but I chose to stay here," says John Phillips, who works for a foreign-exchange company in in Atlanta. "I gripe a lot because it takes me longer to get downtown, but the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's like being in a foreign country."
The Olympics have given Atlanta the feel of an international city. On the street, Chinese and Italian are almost as common as Southern drawls. Street signs advertise directions in Japanese, French, and Spanish. Visitors are from as far away as Yemen and Alaska.
Some foreign visitors are impressed. "You look all around, it is spectacular," says Maria Eugenia, who is visiting from Mexico City.
Others aren't as taken with the city. "At home our press is not saying such nice things," says a Norwegian, who lives in Athens, Ga., and is volunteering at the Games. The lack of unique architecture and the commercialism are being ridiculed, he says.
The corporate flavor of the Olympics - and the high prices some vendors are charging - seem to irk others as well. A pedestrian can barely turn a corner without seeing a Coca-Cola sign, vendors line every inch of some streets, and bottled water in the stadium costs $2.75; a Coke goes for $3.25.
The large numbers of projected visitors originally generated reports that tickets would be scarce. But now a glut of tickets means some scalpers, who asked as much as $2,000 for Opening Ceremonies tickets in January, are selling them for the face value of $636. And ads for nearly every sport pack the Internet and Atlanta newspapers.
The same phenomenon has played out with hotel rooms. More than 2,000 are available throughout Atlanta as corporations or tour packagers cancel reservations. And tens of thousands of homeowners who thought they'd get rich by renting out their digs have been disappointed: Only a fraction of those listed have gotten a response.
Meanwhile, the accommodations at the Olympic Village where 15,000 athletes and coaches bunk, is getting gold-medal reviews for its resort-like environment, which includes a pool, health club, video-game center, bowling alley, and a huge dining hall.
Mindful of a threat of terrorism, Atlanta has assembled the largest peace-time security force ever. Some 25,000 to 30,000 personnel, including police, FBI, and SWAT teams, are on alert. Security at Hartsfield International Airport has also been beefed up with barriers, cameras, and state-of-the-art explosives detection systems.
But most of this will be out of sight during the next 17 days as Atlanta celebrates. One European journalist heard on the radio this week gave a bit of advice to the city: "It doesn't matter what the world thinks of you; it's your party, enjoy it while it lasts."