Hosting the Centennial Olympic Games will give Atlanta a chance to put down overbearing Yankees and even to forget about Sherman. By Helen Kay.
If ever a city has fashioned its own myths that city must surely be Atlanta, the capital of the peach tree state. For a start, there are no peach trees in Georgia. It is the less glamorous pitch tree which grows there. But the name somehow got corrupted and, by state decree, the peach now predominates on residents' licence plates.
The burning of Atlanta by General Sherman's troops has also gone down in the story books. Margaret Mitchell immortalised it in Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett O'Hara showed what a real southern lady is made of: a 17-inch waist and pure steel. Sherman's pillage of the city has been supplemented by the stuff of more modern legend. Drug store owner Asa Candler, whose new headache and hangover tonic brought Coca-Cola to Atlanta; Robert Woodruff, the philanthropist who further proselytised the virtues of the sweet brown fluid; Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer who became president; media mogul Ted Turner, whose CNN brought the Gulf War into homes all over America: these are the heroes of post-bellum Georgia.
In fact, today's self-made man probably did make himself in Atlanta. The gleaming skyscrapers off Peachtree Boulevard house 33 international banking operations, 43 consulates, foreign offices of trade and tourism, and a number of major US firms, like Delta Air Lines and UPS, the brown-liveried evangelist of parcel services. The city is currently ranked as the third best place in the country to conduct business in, according to Fortune.
Now Atlanta is bent on creating yet another story; the story of how, against heavy odds, it won the right to host the '96 Centennial Olympic Games and put on a performance so lavish that the burghers of Atlanta will never again be dismissed by their Yankee neighbours as mere southern bumpkins.
At Georgia Tech, the university responsible for providing much of the technology which ensured Atlanta's selection, plans are already under way for a new Olympic village to house 15,500 athletes and officials. The city is also constructing four major sporting facilities, the largest of which is an 85,000-seat Olympic stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies, football, field and track events.
In readiness for the event, construction of another concourse has begun at Hartsfield International Airport and plans are afoot for a dedicated bus line to transport people around the various Olympic sites. The sumptuous Marriott Marquis, in downtown Atlanta, has already provided a suite for visiting members of the Olympic committee, in the hope that it will be made the headquarters hotel, and additional hotels are springing up everywhere to accommodate an anticipated 170,000 visitors. All this, proponents of the games believe, should bring in a total revenue of between $3.5 and $4 billion over the next five years. It will also, they hope, bring prestige to the city once known as Terminus, in the days when it served as a stopping place for the railroad connecting Georgia with the Tennessee River.
But not everyone is enamoured. Understandably, some of Atlanta's less sporting citizens do not relish a mass invasion of their green and pleasant city. Dubious about the planning, they are still more dubious about the cost, especially when even the proverbially well-padded Atlanta is feeling the pinch. Though many of the facilities are already in place, construction of the additional sporting facilities will cost $358 million. Hartsfield's new concourse will add upwards of another $300 million and the Olympic village an unspecified contribution to the final bill.
Yet, if opinion on the hosting of the Olympics is more divided than Atlanta's public figures would have you think, the city has shown an uncanny aptitude for growing into its myths. Once derided, it has indeed risen from the ashes to become a vibrant business community and now boast a harmony which many Northern cities would do well to emulate. When the long-awaited Olympic flame arrives, it will fuel a city which has well and truly consigned the fires of Sherman to the past.
Helen kay works for The Sunday Times.