Aspiring Olympic Hosts Take Cues From the ‘Atlanta Model’

Since the Olympic Torch last passed through Atlanta in 1996, bidding for the Games has become a much more complex process with reforms that force cities to think of their legacy from the outset, according to a World Affairs Council of Atlanta panel April 9. 

“When we came along, they just said, ‘We’re open for bidding, come bid,’” said Charles Battle, head of international relations for the Atlanta bid and a longtime bid consultant, discussing the International Olympic Committee, which oversees the games. “There was no control, and they never gave anyone any guidance. They were happier with the bigger, the better.”

But recent “Agenda 2020” reforms adopted by the IOC mean cities vying for the chance to host the Olympics have to think with a view toward sustainability and legacy in ways that the Atlanta organizers never did, Mr. Battle said.

“Legacy was never a part of when we bid,” said Mr. Battle, who has consulted with successful bid cities like BeijingVancouver and Sochi, Russia. “Now it’s a whole chapter in your bid book about legacy. They want to know how these games fit into your plan for the city. Is this really complimentary into what you’re trying to accomplish as a city?”

Of course, each city has different goals that are reflected in their respective bids, but there is still pull from interest groups for specific sports, for example, to pressure cities into investing in bigger, more-expensive stadiums that may not align with that city’s long-term needs, Mr. Battle said.

Challenges are also raised in the digital age when local communities come out against bids as in Boston, where more than half of residents are opposed to a private bid for the city to host the 2024 Summer Games, according to recent polling. Many are skeptical that such a bid would drive the sort of economic development and lasting legacy that organizers have promised.

However, with a few exceptions, such as theStone Mountain Tennis Center, Atlanta was one of the few cities in recent decades to reap a successful legacy, Mr. Battle said.

Beyond the most obvious vestiges of the 1996 games – Centennial Olympic Park and Turner Field – multi-million dollar improvements toHartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport and downtown parks remain lasting investments to the city and its reputation, he said.

Even Atlanta’s increase in concentration of Fortune 500 companies over the past 20 years – the metro area now ranks among the top cities in the nation with 16, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber – and the population surge in residents moving back to intown Atlanta can be traced to the legacy of the 1996 Olympics, Mr. Battle said.

“We really did a lot to raise the profile of Atlanta from an international business perspective,” he said.

The 1996 Summer Olympics weren’t just a game changer for the City of Atlanta – they also forced a change in how long-time sponsor Coca-Cola Co. approached its relationship with host cities and major events, said Thierry Borra, Coke’s director of Olympic Games management.

Because Coke is based in Atlanta, Mr. Borra said, there was additional pressure from Atlanta-based executives to make sure the 1996 games were the best up until that point from the sponsors’ point of view.

“We had the pride of making the games fantastic, so we had a different approach,” Mr. Borra said. “In terms of process, in terms of planning, in terms of crisis management, in terms of how we are building the project and the project team, we changed the rules.

“Instead of sending a global team, we are starting to build capability in the market where we are hosting the games, and today we still do that,” he said.

For example, 1996 was a key year for Coke as it pioneered experiential marketing with its Coca-Cola Olympic City attraction in downtown Atlanta and market-specific packaging to better capitalize on its role as a major sponsor. Today, the same approach is used for activations around other mega sporting events like the World Cup, Mr. Borra said.

“So I think the Atlanta legacy is still living,” he continued, noting the work Coke is already doing for the 2016 and 2018 Olympic games in Rio de Janiero and PyeongchangSouth Korea, respectively.

From a local perspective, Coke’s investments around Centennial Olympic Park, including constructing the new World of Coke building and donating the land that would eventually become the Georgia Aquarium and National Center for Civil and Human Rights, have played an important role in revitalizing an important area of Atlanta’s downtown neighborhood.

In that sense, Atlanta stands out from other host cities because revitalization and long-term impact were always goals for the city’s organizers. In that way, Atlanta is serving as a model for cities now taking up a difficult task, said Mark Parkman, vice president of operations for the Olympic Broadcasting Service.

“Very few Olympic cities have taken an urban land development and re-transformed cities. A lot have tried. Some the jury is still out on,” Mr. Parkman said, referencing the most recent 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

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