IN Atlanta these days, all eyes are watching the clock -- the Olympic countdown clock, that is.
Hovering over Interstate 75 in downtown Atlanta, the clock's yellow neon numbers illumine the days and hours left before the city hosts the 1996 Games.
Sixteen months remain before a projected 2 million visitors and 11,000 athletes from 200 countries converge on this southern metropolis for what is billed as the largest media event ever. Four billion people are expected to tune in to the 1996 Games (July 19 to Aug. 4). And more tickets -- 11.2 million of them -- will be available for the Centennial Games than for the Barcelona (1992) and Los Angeles (1984) Olympics combined.
Some other ways in which the Atlanta Games will be different:
A centennial celebration
Nineteen ninety-six is the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympic games, which were first staged in Athens. One reason the International Olympic Committee chose Atlanta over Greece was that it wanted to focus on the next 100 years instead of looking back. Atlanta offered a forward-looking image.
Although the summer Games have been held twice in the United States, in St. Louis (1904) and Los Angeles (1932, '84), this is the first time the American South will play host. Southern culture will be on world display.
''Atlanta is fully aware of this,'' says John Lucas, a professor of sport history at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa. ''They don't wish to duplicate what Peter Ueberroth did in 1984 ... where the opening ceremonies were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and the whole USA bit, which was very appropriate. The Atlanta people want to celebrate the renaissance of the deep South, a South that is no longer half asleep. They want to look into the 21st century, where the city of Atlanta, Georgia, and the entire South will be a beacon of American enterprise, capitalism, and especially an American rainbow of black and white.''
Adds Philip Hersh, Olympic sports writer for the Chicago Tribune, ''Europe and the rest of the world still have many cliched ideas about what the US is and what the South is. This is a chance for the South to show a different face.''
Atlanta will host the most commercial Games ever. The reason, observers say, is that foreign governments foot the bill when the Olympics are held on their soil, but the US government does not. ''All the money must come from somewhere else,'' Lucas says, so the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the Atlanta organizing committee have to tap the private sector.
Compared with Los Angeles, which already had a number of existing sports facilities, Atlanta has had to build many venues from scratch, forcing organizers to pursue corporate dollars more aggressively and find other ways to raise money, says Randy Harvey, Olympic beat writer for the Los Angeles Times. One example is naming ''Jeopardy'' and ''Wheel of Fortune'' as the official game shows of the Games.
Beach volleyball and mountain biking have been added in Atlanta. ''These are sports that are hot; they've gained a tremendous amount of momentum,'' says Mike Moran, director of public relations for the USOC.
The 'H' factor
Depending on which way the wind blows, Atlanta could be hotter than Georgia asphalt or temperately warm. Its location in the deep South, though at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, has some people worried about high humidity. That concern makes Mr. Moran laugh. ''Barcelona was oppressively hot and humid,'' he says. ''I can tell you that conditions in Atlanta will be far superior in terms of heat and the ability to fight it.''
Climate has emerged as an issue with the marathon, an event that traditionally begins in the afternoon and ends when runners cross the finish line during the closing ceremonies. Atlanta Olympic officials want to keep that tradition, but runners and coaches are pushing for a morning run to avoid a potential afternoon steam bath. Organizers have already made some changes in the three-day equestrian event, including longer rest periods, water sprays, and a shorter course.