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Rio debt makes Atlanta’s Olympic legacy shine

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While Izzy and chrome pick-up trucks rubbed some wrong, the Games did Atlanta well, one columnist argues

Chrome pick-up trucks and gaggles of cheerleaders are often what come to mind for some people when the Atlanta Olympic legacy is mentioned.

While there are many bright spots of the Centennial Olympic Games (Centennial Olympic Park, the entry of Atlanta onto the global stage, The Ted, etc.), critics still cite what was called the most "commercialized" Olympics in history — 20 years later.

But in light of Games since 1996 that have hemorrhaged money — costing host cities billions of dollars and subtracting from citizen’s basic needs — more observers are beginning to point toward Atlanta as a major success.

A piece in Fortune magazine cites the mounting costs — now estimated at $20 billion — of the Rio Olympics as a rallying call for reevaluating how the Games are put on. The author, who enviably got to be a torch bearer in Atlanta, cites three lessons from the Atlanta Games that could serve to make the Olympics a better experience for host cities in the future: support, profit, and securing a useful legacy.

When it was announced that Atlanta would host the 1996 Games, Atlantans pretty much collectively lost their shit. It's innacurate to say the Atlanta Games had universal support, but much of the effort to secure the Games came from the community and locally based businesses, not the government, which is the case with pretty much every other Olympics, as the Fortune article points out.

As the writer puts it:

"Because the bid was privately conceived and funded, the Games were never perceived as a 'top down' idea of policy makers, but a 'bottom up' grassroots movement. 'The real legacy of the Games is that the people of Atlanta felt for themselves the legacy of possibility. We can do anything we set our minds to,' [organizer Billy] Payne said following the Games."

Because of the overwhelming support from the business community, plus a frugal plan from the get-go, the Atlanta Olympics didn’t put Atlanta on the brink of financial ruin. In fact, it turned a profit. And, according to (usually generous) estimates by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the events created more than $5 billion of economic impact.

Speaking of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, 20 years later the organization is feeling the effects of just how successful the Games were in establishing a legacy. The group is willingly being displaced for the expansion of Centennial Olympic Park, which has become the epicenter for an array of cultural attractions (and large-scale events) in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, down the street Turner Field — built as the Olympic Stadium — is scheduled to be the centerpiece of a major revitalization of long-neglected, surrounding neighborhoods. The stadium is just one of many Olympic venues that are still used, in contrast to the facilities in most other host countries.

Not too shabby, Atlanta.

So while the chrome pick-up trucks and Izzy may not sit well with some, in hindsight, the Atlanta Games were a pretty fantastic success.