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Olympic Spirit Shines Thru Commercialism - Reporter's Notebook


Dan McGuire--The Tech
The Internet "Surf Shack" provides some online refuge from the Olympics.

By Dan McGuire
ASSOCIATE News Editor

It was a long trip in to Atlanta, but I felt it my duty to come back and look at what was being done to our fair city in order to make it palatable to the world for the 1996 Olympics.

Not much, it appears. Everything got a new coat of paint, stucco, or brick. The local rapid transit system, MARTA, rented several thousand buses from as far away as New York and Illinois. Peachtree Street, the main Atlanta viaduct, was closed for the first time since Sherman marched to the sea. The changes were largely superficial, however, and in many ways it's still the same old town. But now it gets to show itself before the world.

The image it portrays can only be called "odd" because while the personality is the same, now we have money to burn. Atlanta, for all of its glitz, has never been a rich town. High crime and a declining population have left it demoralized. The infrastructure has not seen substantial work since the 1920s.

But then NBC gave us $500 million to put this on TV and Coca-Cola is paying through the nose to have its logo projected on every flat surface and then paying to build more flat surfaces. Corporations from around the country and indeed from around the world paid outrageous sums of money to be given titles like "the Official Suppository of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games" and now the City Council members are delighting in remaking the city in an image so abstractly post-modern that only the most thoughtful artists and Council members can truly begin to understand its form.

For instance, we've begun to sprout Greek pillars. It is as if some giant dropped his box of concrete toothpicks and never picked them up. We've also gotten new street lights, a computerized traffic control system so incredibly complex that it can do what a legion of sadistic Transportation Department flag wavers could only dream of, and several new stadiums, most of which the paint is now dry on.

We've brought in the Army to check for biological weapons, the Navy to drive the buses and the Air Force to direct traffic. The Navy doctors are happily doing emergency rescue exercises with helicopters at a nearby park, amusing the children for hours on end. The FBI are roaring around in armored battlewagons and look generally happy at the chance to intimidate all people from all nations.

But we, the citizens of Atlanta, have also maintained, for the most part, a sense of southern spirit.

I attended a men's field hockey game last Sunday that pitted the Netherlands against Malaysia. I had never, before this, really thought a lot about field hockey, the Netherlands, or Malaysia, and from discussions with the folks around us (mostly Atlantans like me who wanted to see an Olympic sport) we discovered none of us really had.

But we soon lost ourselves in the thrill of the game. We all cheered when either side scored a goal and we all cheered when somebody got up after being impaled with the stick or after falling down on the Astroturf.

After it became clear that the Netherlands was winning, we shouted encouragement to the Malaysian team. If the Malaysian team had pulled ahead, we would have cheered for the Netherlands. Since the Georgia Bull Dawgs weren't playing, there was nothing personal about the game, and everyone was intent on being polite to the athletes.

The Olympic games, I think, serve three purposes. The first, conceived of by the originator of the modern Olympics whose name I cannot remember, was to create a time and a place for nations to forget their differences and become united in the thrill of competition.

The second is to showcase the world's best athletes and give them a chance to display their talents. This includes both the cream of the crop from this year and well as memorable athletes from years ago. Muhammad Ali's lighting of the Olympic flame was a particularly touching example of that talent shining through even advanced Parkinson's disease.

So that leaves us with the third purpose, the chance for the host city to hit the big time. Being host to the Olympic spirit, even for a few weeks, is a very hard job. We have to somehow represent, or at least contain, the spirit of competition and sportsmanship that has allowed the Olympics to endure the centuries.

So, y'all, here we are: pig held high and torch in hand. And we're damn proud of it.