Six years ago, in a major coup, Atlanta outmaneuvered Athens, the birthplace of the modern Olympics, for the right to host the Centennial Games. Real estate attorney Billy Payne spearheaded a major private civic effort, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), to convince Olympic officials that this energetic Southern metropolis was up to the job. Today the city begins a 100-day countdown to the Games, which run July 19-Aug. 4.
Here's some background for those who can't wait to get started:
History of the Games
The seed for the modern Olympics was planted by wealthy Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who dreamed of building better ties among nations through sport. Looking to the ideals embodied in the ancient Greek Olympics, held nearly 2,800 years earlier, de Coubertin established the International Olympic Committee in 1894.
Two years later, 311 athletes from 13 countries met in Athens to compete in nine sports. Greece accounted for three-quarters of the athletes and won a majority of the medals, including the marathon, where a seven-minute margin of victory by Greek shepherd Spiridon Louis (2:58:50) was completed before a stadium packed with over 100,000 spectators.
Greece lobbied to permanently host the Olympics, but de Coubertin's influence was felt in the decision to hold the next Games in Paris, where attendance was sparse. Despite that flop, the Olympics have been held every four years since, with three exceptions: Wars canceled the games in 1916, '40, and '44. A boycott by the United States and Western countries marred the 1980 Moscow Games; the Soviet bloc retaliated by not going to Los Angeles in '84.
Women athletes step up
No women competed in 1896 and fewer than 1,000 did in 1968. In Atlanta, the number of female athletes will reach an all-time high of 3,700, a 39 percent increase over 1992 in Barcelona. Roughly 6,600 male athletes are expected to attend.
A poor showing by female 800-meter runners at the 1928 Olympics fed stereotypes of feminine frailty. The track was strewn with "damsels" in "agonized distress," The New York Times reported. No women's race longer than 200 meters was held again until 1960, when US star WIlma Rudolph won gold metals in the 100-, 200- and 4x100-meter relay.
The biggest breakthrough occurred when the first women's marathon, won by Joan Benoit Samuelson, was held at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Since then, Olympic officials have moved vigorously to add opportunities for women.
Cultural and religious traditions continue to hobble women athletes in some countries. One who has overcome such limitations is Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka, the defending Olympic 1,500-meter champion and a Muslim.
Local Olympic organizers have had to cope with a number of challenges, including construction setbacks in this $1.7 billion event. Perhaps the two biggest concerns now are heat and crime.
Much has been made of Atlanta's sauna-like summers. How athletes and spectators will fare at 90 degrees F. remains a big question.
One survey based on 1994 FBI statistics ranks Atlanta the most violent city in the United States, but city officials say conditions have improved since. Extra security precautions are part of hosting the Olympics, and the city's center, "the Olympic Ring," will get special attention. "Our friendliness will steal the show," organizer Payne has predicted.
Traditions burn bright
For all the changes in scenery, the Games still feel familiar: the five interlocking rings, the flame, the medal presentations, opening and closing ceremonies, and the torch relay. Each Olympics since 1972 has also had a mascot; Atlanta's is a space-age creature called Izzy. As usual, organizers are reluctant to discuss the opening ceremony, other than to say the themes will be youth, the American South, and the Olympic centennial. Also, instead of releasing doves, a "symbolic and theatrical" release of some kind will be made.
A record 197 National Olympic Committees have accepted invitations to compete in Atlanta. Barring cancellations, this will mark the first time full attendance has been achieved. In the past various factors, including political boycotts (by the US in 1980, by the Soviet Union in 1984), war, and the inability of some small nations to field teams, have prevented it. A Palestinian team will be among those making its first appearance at the Atlanta Games.
172 hours of TV
NBC, which paid $456 million for the US rights, will televise the Summer Games for the third straight time. The network plans 172 hours of coverage, about 70 percent of it live. A lion's share of the air time will be devoted to the most popular spectator sports (basketball, swimming and diving, gymnastics, volleyball, and track and field), with other sports often shown in highlight form. The global audience for all rights holders is an estimated 3.5 billion viewers.
Some have referred to these as "the Coca-Cola Olympics" because of the anticipated high profile of the Atlanta-based soft drink manufacturer and other corporate giants. Corporate support is nothing new - it dates to print ads in the very first Olympics program - but it has escalated dramatically since 1984, when Los Angeles hosted the first Games since 1896 that did not use government financing. Corporate backing rode to the rescue, and now sponsors line up at every Olympics. At the top of a tiered structure are 10 worldwide sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, Visa, and IBM. McDonald's, a Centennial Olympic Partner, will hang out a fast-food shingle in the athletes' village for the first time. Nike, Reebok, and other manufacturers will use client athletes to spread their messages.
What's new this time
To modernize the Games and expand athletic opportunities, beach volleyball, mountain biking, and women's soccer and softball have been added. Streamlining has occurred elsewhere: Synchronized swimming will have but a single event, and the pentathlon - the run-shoot-ride-fence-and-swim competition - will take place in one day, not four.