Olympics power struggle threatens to divide Atlanta The Olympics effort will be played out along lines of race and class.

April 09, 1991|By New York Times

ATLANTA -- When Atlanta pulled off the remarkable coup of being chosen to host the 1996 summer Olympics, it marked the jTC culmination of a zealous marketing effort aimed at portraying an image of unity, prosperity and racial harmony.

So much for the easy part. Now, as the $1.2 billion effort to stage the games gears up, it is occurring in a place that seldom bears much resemblance to the idealized blend of Martin Luther King Jr. and Scarlett O'Hara sold to the International Olympic Committee.

Instead, the process has begun with a power struggle between the overwhelmingly white group that won the games and the black mayor of a city that is 70 percent black; an upscale neighborhood's successful effort to block a proposed Olympic tennis stadium and protests by residents of two inner city neighborhoods who fear the games will displace the poor.

For the most part, Atlanta is still basking in the glow of the Olympic victory. Almost everyone agrees the games, if handled right, could provide an infusion of resources for the poor as well as a luminous platform and a business bonanza for the city.

"The power and the passion of the people is clearly on the side of staging successful games consistent with the leadership that we've developed," said Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. "This is a situation where everybody can win."

But there is also widespread recognition that the effort to stage the games will be played out over a Byzantine power grid, along numerous fault lines of race and class, that could provide some horrific jolts.

"This is not a settled time in urban life anywhere and certainly not in Atlanta," said Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council, a non-profit civil rights and educational group in Atlanta.

"If the economics of the games look good, that creates some elbow room for some real accommodation of interests. But if you have projections showing that large deficits are a possibility, then I think it's going to be messy and unpleasant and enduringly so."

The contradictions at the heart of the effort begin with the way the games were won. Almost no one took much notice in 1967 when Payne, a real estate lawyer and former University of Georgia football star, came up with what seemed like the wildly eccentric idea of trying to bring the Olympics to Atlanta. Along the way, the committee enlisted the support of broad segments of the community without relinquishing any control.

When Atlanta's bid won its surprise victory, governmental bodies woke up to find the private Olympic committee dominated by affluent whites in control of what is likely to be the largest economic enterprise in the history of a city that, despite the economic boom that has enriched its suburbs, remains one of the nation's poorest.

Putting on the games will involve an estimated $418 million in construction, including a new Olympic stadium, Olympic village and two high-rise housing towers.

After some edgy negotiations, the city and the Olympic committee worked out an agreement that left the committee firmly in control, but already several politically and racially sensitive issues have arisen.

Some residents of the Sumerhill area, a poor black neighborhood parts of which were bulldozed 25 years ago for the construction of the stadium that now is used by the Atlanta Braves baseball team and Atlanta Falcons football team, have vowed to stop construction of the Olympic stadium planned for their neighborhood.

"They came in here 25 years ago and took over people's homes," said Ethel M. Matthews, an organizer of the effort to stop the stadium. "They disappeared like ants. We want the Olympics to come to Atlanta, but we don't want them to take our homes to build parking lots."

Atlanta City Council President Marvin Arrington last week proposed that another low-income housing project, the Techwood homes at the edge of what is slated to become the Olympic Village, be demolished to make way for housing for the Olympics. After the games are over, the facilities would be used as dramatically upgraded housing for the poor, he said.

Residents there are leery.

"I would like to see some community-based people sitting on the boards," said Maggie Smith, president of the tenants' association at Techwood homes. "Right now the only thing everybody's interested in is the Olympics coming here and making money out of it."

But Atlanta's politics have come a long way since the stadium was built in Summerhill. For instance, Payne said, the Olympics will have the most aggressive minority business program in the city's history.

"There's no question those people's voices are heard in a way they were not 25 years ago," said Suitts.

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