Atlanta Struggles to Spit-Shine Its Image

With Olympic Games approaching, the Southern city combats public-relations gaffes, mishaps

FOUR months before the world's top athletes step into the Olympic spotlight, the Games' host city is discovering that being the center of attention can be both gratifying and grueling. Lately, the latter has held true.

In the past few weeks, the city and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) have their public-relations efforts trying to downplay several incidents that have painted an unflattering picture of this Southern metropolis.

When a man from New Mexico called to order tickets, an ACOG ticket agent insisted that she could not sell tickets to callers from other countries. The geography blunder became the butt of jokes and ridicule as some in the media questioned the educational knowledge of Atlantans and Southerners in general.

Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers riled some when he said he believed it was safer to walk the streets of Sarajevo than the streets of Atlanta. Mayor Bill Campbell bristled at the comparison, charging Mr. Bowers, who is expected to be a Republican candidate for governor, with posturing for political gain. Still, the comment ricocheted around the country and the world: ''Streets of Ire,'' blared the headline over a story in The Times of London.

Last week two steel beams designed to support a temporary roof over the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center collapsed. No one was hurt, but the mishap renewed concerns about safety at the Olympic venues. Some ironworkers have refused to return to the site and have charged that ACOG is trying to cut construction corners. The incident comes almost a year after a temporary light tower fell at the Olympic Stadium, killing one construction worker.

'Something to prove'

All Olympic host cities experience their share of gaffes and goofs, and Atlanta's recent problems are no worse than those other cities have faced, many say. Yet the media spotlight may be more intense because Atlanta is in the South - a region still trying to break away from a backward image - and because it lacks the international status of other Olympic hosts.

''Atlanta has something to prove,'' says John Lucas, a professor of sports history at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa. ''At the moment it would seem to the world that Atlanta is a merely one-dimensional city ... without ambience and history ... and there are Europeans, Asians, and Africans who are not absolutely sure where the place is.''

The city is also under the microscope because of its government, Mr. Lucas says. ''Many Olympic Games have been held in countries that are militaristic or pseudo-democratic, and a great many gaffes have been kept from the public,'' he says. ''We're doing things in an American democratic way in Atlanta, which means we are exposing ourselves in every way, shape, and form in all our Olympic nakedness.''

Sportswriters who cover the Games agree the only problem that merits concern is the safety issue. ''Let's just say beams falling down doesn't inspire a lot of confidence,'' says Philip Hersh, Olympic sportswriter of the Chicago Tribune. Olympic construction officials have determined the error is not in the roof's design and are focusing on how the steel was made.

Other Olympic sites have also experienced construction accidents, including Seoul and Barcelona. ''It's a problem with constructing venues for events that are ... done on a tight deadline with as little money as possible,'' says Randy Harvey, Olympic beat writer for the Los Angeles Times.

In sharp focus

As the Games edge closer, Atlanta can expect greater focus on every minute detail of the Games and the city - from mundane problems to the more serious. ''This goes with the territory and has been consistent throughout history,'' says Robert Barney, director of the Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. ''They're part of the price one pays for bidding and hosting the Olympics.''

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