July 18, 1996
Trouble in Dixie land
By KEN FIDLIN
ATLANTA -- It takes almost no time at all in the heart of Dixie to realize something isn't right.
On the eve of a global celebration like the Olympics, a city is supposed to glow. It is supposed to reek of infectious charm and vibrance and pride. At the very least, it should have its act together. It should be clean and neat. It should look like it's ready for a party. And you should have some sort of idea where the party is to be held.
The awful first impression of the Atlanta Olympic effort is that this is some kind of elaborate practical joke. The world has showed up at Atlanta's door to take her to the prom and, cripes, she's still in her barn clothes. Disorganization is king.
Maybe it says something profoundly sad about the Olympic movement that, 100 years after the timeless grandeur of Athens and the modern revival, the Games will open tomorrow in a city where the closest thing to a cosmopolitan setting is the International House of Pancakes.
This is supposed to be Atlanta's finest hour and the scary part is, it might be the best they can do.
As our bus crawled its way through choked downtown streets travelling a curious circuitous route, apparently to nowhere, a guy couldn't help but remember all the dire predictions for Los Angeles in 1984. That supposed traffic nightmare never materialized and L.A. became the standard by which all recent Games have been measured. Unless they can get the cars off the streets and quickly, Atlanta promises to be everything bad that L.A. was supposed to be, but wasn't.
And, of course, it's hot and unbearably sticky. But the world easily can overcome traffic and weather with good humor and an adventurous spirit by everyone, including the competitors. Years from now, no one will remember it was unbearably hot or that gridlock reigned.
Canadian rower Silken Laumann survived the transportation system yesterday, but barely. She spent the better part of three hours to make a trip that should have taken 45 minutes.
"We waited (at the rowing venue) forever for the bus and when it arrived, 100 people ran for it," she said. "It's amazing no one got hurt."
If these Games are going to leave any kind of enduring legacy, if a million visitors walk away from Dixie with any emotional attachment, it will be left entirely to the athletes to deliver.
And make no mistake, they will deliver as they do every four years. Our disillusioned rant has nothing whatsoever to do with the Olympic spirit inasmuch as it pertains to the competitors themselves.
"I've been thinking about this since I was little," said Hamilton swimmer and medal hopeful Joanne Malar.
"Every birthday when I blew out the candles, I would make a wish that I could be in the Olympic Games. As far back as I can remember, that's what I wished for."
Malar's dream is one shared by thousands of other competitors and they will compete nobly, in victory and in defeat.
On the other hand, Atlanta, the world-class wannabe, is going to fall short. There exists here, at least in the mind of mover and shaker Billy Payne, the belief that some incredible metamorphosis is about to occur and that Atlanta somehow will become Paris or Rome.
"We will succeed, I have no doubt," Payne said. "Our goals are to reunite the family of man in the profound bond of the Olympic spirit, and to present Atlanta as a world-class symbol of the future."
Near as we can make out, the future must be about tents, because every available square inch of vacant land within walking distance of downtown is covered by them. The landscape is a sea of disorganized and unsightly white plastic.
And that about symbolizes the Atlanta Games. Plastic. Cheap looking. A little hillbilly architecture that extends to the most vivid of Olympic symbols, the cauldron that will sustain the sacred flame for the next two weeks.
It has been described as a giant deep fryer. And that about says everything that needs to be said about Atlanta's Olympic preparations.
God bless the athletes, because their accomplishments will be all that endures.