1 Aug 2012

Olympic archive: Atlanta’s tarnished dream (1996)

For some, the commercialism of the 1996 Atlanta Games undermined the Olympic ideal. For others, it merely confirmed that sponsorship was a necessary part of any major sporting event.

The 1996 Atlanta Games were six years in the planning and cost more than £1bn, writes Ian Searcey.

But the presence of professional competitors and an increase in sponsorship meant that, for many, the Olympics had become a vehicle for commercial excess.

For others, politics in the form of boycotts and terrorist atrocities (a bomb was detonated in the city on 27 July) changed the mood of the event.

‘Rampant commercialism’

When Lindsay Taylor reported from Atlanta for Channel 4 News, some members of the International Olympic Committee were privately expressing concerns about corporate involvement and “rampant commercialism” at the Games.

Coca-Cola saw their mini-stadium for child athletes of the future as an excellent way to support the Olympics. Meanwhile, undercover police patrolled among visitors and street traders to ensure all merchandise on sale was official.

Even the Centennial Park memorial service for victims of the July bomb included a plug for the park sponsors.

‘Detraction’ for Atlanta

The organisers were adamant that staging an event of such size was impossible without public/private partnership and corporate support. They also saw the post-Games sporting infrastructure benefits – built without any cost to the taxpayer – as a “win-win” for them.

Mal Hemmerling, visiting the Games on behalf of the Sydney 2000 committee, expressed some disappointment that the profusion of official merchandise and food outlets had acted as “a detraction to the city” for many visitors.

But with commercialism and sponsorship increasingly recognised as an inextricable part of any major sporting event, Atlantans were unapologetic about doing the Olympics “the American way”.