Profit was all Greek to Athens

Phil Jackman

September 19, 1990|By Phil Jackman

Quite simply, tradition would have carried too steep a price.

Thus Atlanta, which started out pretty much as a sacrificial lamb a few years ago, ends up as the fatted calf.

Picture it: President George Bush, in the final year of his second term, stepping to the microphone and saying, "I declare open the Games of the 25th Olympiad." Cue the pigeons and balloons.

It is July 20, 1996, no more than a week after the folks in Athens have cooled down about not being awarded the centenary celebration of the Modern Games by the International Olympic Committee.

Forget the fact that Greece had lost any interest in the Olympics years ago. As the 100th anniversary year approached, it foresaw an economic windfall. So it wrapped up a bid in tradition, words like Olympic ideal and responsibility and assumed the IOC would "do the right thing."

The runners-up in the balloting complaining that the "IOC was guided by the very thing it criticized during the entire campaign: profit," ought now review their own motives.

On the surface, a return to the birthplace of the Modern Games, originally decreed by Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertain for sentimental reasons, would have been fine in theory, hugely impractical in attempts to carry it out.

A severe lack of accommodations, deplorable rapid transport, advanced pollution problems and an alarming security record are a few of Athens' drawbacks. To help correct the problems, the country planned on utilizing defense budget monies?

For a money-making venture with a specious set of values like the Olympics? What's Greek for let them eat cake?

When bidding for the Olympics was first proposed by Atlantan Billy Payne just two years ago, many concluded the guy had been kicked in the head once too often while playing defensive end at the University of Georgia.

By the time of the city's final presentation to the 92-member IOC, however, Atlanta assumed an aura of Camelot: Accommodations galore (65,000 hotel rooms by 1996). Great convention experience as the third largest convention site in the country. Modern rapid transit. A smooth-functioning airport, second busiest in the world. Headquarters of no less than nine Fortune 500 companies.

These things plus facilities, real and planned, marketing considerations and, in first place, television are the factors that dictate votes. As one voter pointed out, "Athens started the race one step ahead, but you can't award the Games with your heart."

And it's likely to always be the case ever since Peter Ueberroth showed the august body how to turn a few bucks with his fabulously successful 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

All things considered (the monumental challenge facing Athens), the IOC showed an admirable tendency toward tradition by sticking with the capital of Greece through five ballots. It actually picked up support as the voting went on with the city receiving the least support dropping off each subsequent ballot.

Athens was the top vote getter as Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and Manchester, England, fell by the wayside. Atlanta moved up to a tie on the third roll call as Melbourne, Australia, departed. Atlanta took a slight lead, 34-30, as Toronto went out and, in

head-to-head competition, it was 51-35, Atlanta winning the bid with the loser still adding backers.

Payne, who heads the Atlanta Organizing Committee, said $1.2 billion will be spent and revenues project to $1.4 billion. Cable TV being what it is these days, the combined rights fees will be massive, especially with the Games in the Eastern time zone.

Now the losers can rail all they want about idealism slipping down the tubes as the IOC continues its lunge toward the big money, but considering where a goodly chunk of dough goes, their argument lacks conviction.

As much TV money as the IOC keeps for operating expenses (8 percent) goes to developing countries to underwrite their involvement in the Games. Time was when the Olympics involved a couple dozen teams, a fraction of the number (160) who showed up in Seoul to compete two years ago.

In addition, all IOC members realize funds from the Olympic Program, a marketing arm that disperses about $175 million in profits between Olympics.

Another thing probably working against Athens: The '92 Games are in Barcelona, there's a strong possibility the "Peace Games" of 2000 will be in Berlin and the IOC likes to alternate continents. And Europe has the next two Winter Olympics, too.

Reaction in Atlanta ran the gamut from a woman saying, "We have the Super Bowl in '94 and now this," to Mayor Maynard Jackson saying, "I feel like an exclamation point has been laid down in the history of our city."

Come to think of it, it is quite a comeback from the day William Tecumseh Sherman trooped through on his March to the Sea.

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