Atlanta Sprints for the Gold

To woo Olympic committee, Southern hospitality is pitted against charms of Toronto, Athens. 1996 OLYMPICS: HOT PURSUIT

WITH six years to go before the 1996 summer Olympic games, the drive to bring Olympics to Atlanta is already in its final stage - and promotional banners are as visible here as the well-known Coca-Cola signs. Red, yellow, and blue banners brightly proclaiming ``Atlanta 1996'' adorn Hartsfield International Airport with the Olympic logo on their lower edges. Bumper stickers, buttons, and lapel pins, too, are everywhere as part of this blitz.

The airport banners make perfect sense, of course, because for the past six months Atlanta has been courting arriving delegates from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), hoping to win their support and votes with old-fashioned Southern hospitality and a carefully orchestrated tour of the city. During the next six months, another 25 delegates are scheduled to visit.

``We're pulling out all of the bells and whistles. We're not doing it for the practice,'' says Billy Payne, an Atlanta native and the director of the Atlanta Organizing Committee (AOC).

Mr. Payne resigned from his law practice three years ago to work on the effort along with a small group of volunteers. His group has been promoting Atlanta as the 1996 site ever since then - an effort that paid off in Spring 1988 when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) chose Atlanta over 14 other US cities.

Still, Atlanta faces some eager competitors. Toronto; Melbourne; Manchester, England; Belgrade; and Athens are also preparing bids. And many people see Athens as the sentimental favorite, since 1996 will be the centennial of the rebirth of the modern games in Athens.

Of the modern cities, Toronto and Atlanta are widely considered front-runners with facilities to accommodate crowds. But Toronto's chances may be less, since Canada has hosted two Olympics in the past decade.

In the past few weeks, AOC members and Andrew Young, Atlanta's former mayor, have traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to attend meetings and win support.

While the 92 members of the IOC will not make a final decision on the site for the 1996 games until September, the AOC and its volunteers are optimistic.

``Atlanta's chances are superb,'' says Harvey Schiller, executive director of the USOC. ``The city has an ideal location with a strong support system.''

But the city's strongest point is its people ``all of the volunteers, the business community and the sports community,'' Mr. Schiller says. ``Everyone has rallied behind the Olympic effort.''

Winning the Olympics would be a major event for Atlanta, a rapidly expanding city striving to gain a reputation as a convention center and an international hub. The city would receive worldwide recognition as the first Southern city ever to host the Olympics and the third US city ever to host the summer games. (St. Louis hosted the games in 1904, and Los Angeles hosted them in 1932 and 1984.)

Even if Atlanta wins, the games will not come cheaply. While Atlanta's promotional staff is small, its budget has been large. The $5.3 million budget has come mostly through corporate and private donations.

Then there is the cost of the 16-day games, which could total $1 billion. About $350 million worth of facilities - a new Olympic stadium, a swimming complex, a velodrome, and twin tower dormitories - have yet to be built.

The total cost, however, would likely be offset by the profit from about $900 million in television rights, corporate sponsorships, suppliers, royalties, and ticket sales. In addition, the AOC estimates the games would bring revenues of about $1 billion to local businesses and governments.

Indeed, Mr. Young believes the summer games would be a tremendous morale booster for the city. Young has been pitching Atlanta, which calls itself ``the city too busy to hate,'' as the ``birthplace of the human rights movement,'' since Atlanta was the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. Young has repeatedly emphasized to IOC visitors how Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence has spread throughout the world.

Prodigious volunteerism has been a hallmark of the Atlanta effort. The AOC, which has its headquarters in donated space in the city's new International Business Machines Building, has only six paid staff members. But the number of volunteers working on the project is now over 1,000.

``The volunteer spirit of this city is limitless,'' Mr. Payne says. ``I think we'll have to go through a screening process and end up turning people away.''

An additional 100,000 volunteers are being recruited to actually work during the Olympics. Nearly 50,000 people have signed up through petitions circulated at local athletic events, high school football and basketball games.

``Most people know about `Gone With the Wind,''' Payne says. ``But they don't know that Atlanta is a young, vibrant city. We've got the people and resources. ... Atlanta's time has come.''

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