It's Atlanta

With a lot of help from Georgia Tech


Cheering crowd By Jerry Schwartz
I t was a Sunday morning in 1987 when the idea of bringing the Olympics to Atlanta first occurred to Billy Payne as he was sitting in church. It was, in the words of Georgia Tech researcher Michael Sinclair, "a crazy, long-shot idea."

Billy Payne's far-fetched notion - now the dominant reality of Atlanta in 1996 - took shape in no small measure as a result of work by dozens of officials, professors, and students at Georgia Tech, including Sinclair, director of Georgia Tech's Interactive Multimedia Technology Center.

Viewed as a whole, Georgia Tech's role in the campaign to win the Olympics for Atlanta, its crucial role in the staging of the Games and its Olympic sports research represents probably the most intense involvement by a university in any modern Olympic Games.

It isn't difficult to see the impact the Olympic Games has had on Georgia Tech, with new dormitories, a new Aquatic Center, and the remodeled Alexander Memorial Coliseum now fixtures of the Atlanta skyline.

The Tech Impact

B Billy Payne with the flame ut only the few dreamers who started on the Olympic quest with Billy Payne more than nine years ago know the full impact Georgia Tech had on the Olympic Games.

At a time when the Olympic bid effort was almost as unknown in Atlanta as Atlanta was unknown to the international sports world, Georgia Tech was working with a group then called the Atlanta Organizing Committee to win a high-stakes, global election.

Payne, president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, said early support from Georgia Tech officials was crucial to framing Atlanta's first Olympic proposals. Georgia Tech, he said, "made it known to me that, while complicated, there surely could be some accommodation made with respect to summer school and some of the other difficult issues - that all problems have a solution."

As his quest began, Payne has admitted, he knew nothing about the Olympic movement - not even which Games were the next available to bid on. When he asked that question of Robert Helmick, then president of the United States Olympic Committee, he was told it would be the 100th anniversary games which, at the time, seemed a cinch to be land in Athens, Greece, birthplace of both the ancient and modern Olympics.

Making Atlanta's candidacy even more unlikely was the fact that the International Olympic Committee was unlikely to return the Olympics to the United States so soon after the Summer Olympic Games of Los Angeles in 1984, and the Winter Olympic Games of Lake Placid in 1980. Finally, there was the cold fact that no city in the world ever had won the right to stage the Olympic Games on its first bid attempt.

Technological Credibility

A tlanta needed credibility in a hurry. It came, ini tially, from then Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, from Atlanta builder Robert Holder, and from Georgia Tech. Young and Holder are now co- chairmen of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. Georgia Tech is the recipient of the most ambitious Olympic construction program.

Holder introduced Payne to the Atlanta business community, the principal financial backers of the Atlanta effort. Young, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, gave the Atlanta bid an edge among African members of the IOC. What Georgia Tech brought was respect for a region of the country presumed by the world to be technologically deficient.

"`The reputation of the American South in the rest of the world was as a backwater region that really was not able to run anything as sophisticated as the Olympic Games,'' John P. "Pat" Crecine, former Georgia Tech president, said.

To put that misconception to rest, more than 40 Georgia Tech computer scientists, including Sinclair, were recruited to assemble a virtual reality, three-dimensional tour through Olympic venues that had not yet even been designed, much less, built.

"I had no idea what Pat was talking about when he proposed it,'' Payne admitted. In 1989, the term "virtual reality'' was almost unknown when Tech's seven-foot tall, three-screen, 3-D interactive video and laser disc projection system debuted during a meeting of the International Olympic Committee at San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"It was a short cut and a visual way for the IOC to understand our bid," Payne said. "It had a tremendous impact on the IOC." Members of the committee used a trackball and a touch screen to view a dazzling montage of animation, computer graphics, aerial photography, video and satellite topographical photographs to depict Atlanta during the Centennial Olympic Games.

Building the Games

W Thrillerdome ith the IOC vote in September 1990 to award the games to Atlanta, the hard work began. Once again, the Olympic planners found support at Georgia Tech.

A. Russell Chandler, a Georgia Tech alumnus and successful businessman, had volunteered to consult on projects related to on- campus housing for Tech students. It was only natural that Chandler begin working with Tech and ACOG on the Olympic Village.

"Russ fell in love with the Olympics and has been, from the beginning, kind of the heart and soul of our Village,'' Payne said. "He did that out of a combination of affection for Tech and as an Olympic fan."

What few people know is that Tech was originally designated as only one of three Olympic villages in Atlanta. "They were planning to use Tech, Emory and the Atlanta University Center," Chandler recalled. Atlanta was preparing to follow the model of Los Angeles in using multiple, campus-based Olympic villages. "But early on, the IOC made it clear that the only thing that would work would be a single Olympic village. When that became clear, then Georgia Tech was the only logical choice," Chandler recalled.

The resulting $108 million housing construction project of seven new residence halls has doubled Tech's on-campus housing supply and provides capacity for 70 percent of the student body. An additional $17 million in renovations was performed on existing dormitories.

During his years of work on the project, ACOG asked Chandler to become mayor of the Olympic Village. "If there's anything, in advance of the Games, that has been universally proclaimed as the best ever it's the village," Payne said. "There seems to be no doubts about that. Everybody has said it. And that's in large measure a credit to Russ, who took the generic 'Yeah, we support you,' and transformed it into an operating village that has just won tremendous acclaim."

The $12 million renovation of Alexander Memorial Coliseum prepared it to become the Olympic boxing venue. The $21 million Aquatic Center arrived at almost the same moment as Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough. "Wayne came on as we were under construction in the swimming venue," Payne recalled. "He was very proud of it. He made it clear to me initially that Tech was honored to have it, honored to serve as the Village, and he said he would be available to assist at every turn. And he has been."

Almost overlooked in all of the permanent construction projects at Tech are the dozens of temporary construction projects. The water polo venue - seats, pool and all - will disappear after the Olympics. Temporary seats in the Aquatic Center will be removed after the Games, but the swimming pool and the diving well and platform will remain as a permanent legacy.

While most of the dining and entertainment facilities of the Olympic Village also will evaporate after the Games, a permanent Olympic Plaza with its landmark Kessler Campanile, named for alumnus Richard Kessler, will remain as a reminder of the Olympic presence on the campus.

The Tech Designed Flame

B ut Tech's involvement in Atlanta's Olympic effort extends well outside the campus - in fact about 15,000 miles from Atlanta. A team of Tech engineering professors and graduate students designed the 3.5 - pound Olympic torch carried throughout Greece and around the United States on the torch relay. The engineering challenge involved was no simple assignment, according to mechanical engineering professor Dr. Sam Shelton, one of the co-designers. The torch had to burn 45 minutes without refueling, resist wind, rain and dramatic changes in temperature and elevation along its route.

Moreover, Tech researchers have been involved in dozens of Olympic related projects - from tracking Atlanta's traffic flow during the Games to researching the biomechanics of platform diving. Dr. Robert Gregor, professor of health and performance science, has been a member of the group which conducts physiological research for the IOC Medical Commission since 1981. During the Games, the group is conducting 14 separate projects involving researchers from institutions all over the world.

Billy Payne, who went to war with Yellow Jackets during his years as a varsity defensive lineman at the University of Georgia, concedes that he's had to endure the barbs of teammates, classmates and Bulldog supporters who never tire of reminding him that Athens has only soccer finals and preliminary volleyball competition, while Georgia Tech is at the heart of Olympic activity.

"It's been the source of a lot of humor and jokes and fun," Payne said. "I must admit I've had several inquiries about why those tens of millions dollars didn't go up to Athens, but it's been good natured, and we've had a lot of great Tech people involved really from the outset. I guess it's the Olympic spirit at work."


Jerry Schwartz is an Atlanta-based free-lance writer.