$2.50 for a Bottle of Water? This Must Be the Olympics

Some say that Atlanta has gone too far in commercializing Games

Scott and Marti Lintner are spending $2,000 for Olympic memories. That is the amount the Indianapolis couple estimate it will cost them and their two young daughters to attend Atlanta's Centennial Games for a week.

The Lintners are paying $110 a night for a hotel room 45 minutes from the city that normally costs $39. They've shelled out hundreds of dollars in tickets and will spend hundreds more to park, eat, and purchase an occasional $2.50 bottle of water.

High prices and the commercial look of the Games make Mr. Lintner wince slightly. "Thousands of people are here to make a buck. It's the American way," Lintner says. "I was expecting it, but it does bother me."

From giant Swatch watches that decorate buildings to the ubiquitous Coca-Cola signs, Atlanta will go down as the most logo-splashed Games in history. The rampant advertising concerns many who say commercialism is getting out of hand and needs to be reined in.

"The commercial, entrepreneurial, and financial dimension grows exponentially at every Olympic Games, and anything that grows that rapidly to that size presents a serious problem," says John Lucas, professor emeritus of sport science at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Penn.

Part of the dilemma, Mr. Lucas says, is that the Olympics themselves have grown too large. Atlanta marks the first time all countries invited attended, and the number of athletes participating has ballooned as well. While that is quite an accomplishment for the International Olympic Committee, Mr. Lucas says, it means more money is needed to fund the Games and thus organizers turn increasingly to the corporate world.

The IOC "should start to downsize the Olympics," Lucas says. "As you build it larger and larger what inevitably will happen [is that] it will fall from its own weight."

The commercialism of the Games began in 1980 when Juan Antonio Samaranch became president of the IOC, says John Hoberman, a critic of the organization. "By 1981 amateurism was history in the Olympic charter," charges Professor Hoberman of the University of Texas, Austin. Over the next 15 years, he says, the Olympics turned into an advertising vehicle for multinational corporate sponsors.

Commercialism has been more present at Games that have been held in the United States than in other countries. The main reason: The US government doesn't dole out any dollars for the event, so organizers must ask companies to pay most of the costs. That differs from Norway, which gave Lillehammer $2 billion to help put on the '94 Winter Games, and Australia, which has already pledged $4 billion to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games says it will take $1.7 billion to stage the Games, and the money is coming from broadcast rights, ticket sales, and sponsorships. Like other cities, the organizing committee will do well if it breaks even. Most of the money will be made by corporations and some vendors.

"We are forced, regrettably, to turn to the private sector and they have responded magnificently. But they want something in return, and therefore it becomes occasionally vulgar and glitzy and overwhelming in its entrepreneurial and commercial thrust," Lucas says.

All of this has given the area around Centennial Olympic Park the look of a giant carnival. White tents and souvenir booths line the streets, and in the park itself air-conditioned advertising exhibitions by AT&T, Swatch, and Budweiser loom across the landscape. Coke has erected "Coca-Cola Olympic City," which charges $13 for admission.

Still, visitors seem to understand the advertising is necessary. "It's not possible to have the Games without sponsors," shrugs Juergen Kemkes from Germany.

And most interviewed say despite the logos and high cost of food, hotels, and parking, it is worth coming to watch the Games in person. "It's a unique experience - the peaceful, main event in the world," says Rodrigo Fernandez, who works for the Chilean Embassy in Washington D.C. "Even if you don't attend sporting events, there's a special spirit."

Visitors may question the costs, but they're still filling the venues, Lucas says. The Atlanta Games has sold about 8.5 million of its 11 million tickets - more than any other Olympics. "They're breaking the doors down," Lucas says. "I went to women's volleyball, and 18,000 people paying $50 each poured in to see those preliminaries. Are the ticket prices too high? Yes. Is it keeping people away? No."

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