Heat is on for America's Big Chicken

OLYMPIC GAMES: With 100 days to go before the opening ceremony, the countdown to the Centennial Olympiad has begun in earnest. Rupert Cornwell reports from Atlanta on the glitz and glamour preceding all the razzmatazz
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The Independent Online
On a bleak early April morning, whipped by an icy wind coursing between the downtown skyscrapers, you can hardly believe it. But unless the seasons have reversed themselves irrevocably, in just 100 days the Centennial Olympics will formally get under way in this very place, in a steamy all-enveloping heat that makes the tropics seem tender.

A record 197 competing teams will gather, not in Athens as history suggested, and certainly all of Greece insisted - but here in this surging metropolis of the "New South", where antiquity means life before shopping malls, and the closest you get to a Greek temple is four plexiglass and wire columns on Margaret Mitchell plaza at the corner of Peachtree and Forsyth streets. Ms Mitchell's Gone with the Wind may be the legend of Atlanta. The reality is Newt Gingrich and Martin Luther King, CNN and Coca-Cola, and a refurbished city arising from a building site.

Indisputably, though, order is emerging from chaos. The red brick Olympic stadium, next to the old Atlanta Braves baseball stadium which it will replace next year, is virtually complete. Huge highways gleam with fresh tarmac. The Centennial Olympic park on the previously derelict site just west of downtown - personalised paving bricks on sale for $35 (pounds 23.50) apiece - is taking shape, as is the adjoining Coca-Cola theme park where visitors will be able to race against the likes of Linford Christie and Carl Lewis in virtual reality 100 metre finals. The brand new Olympic village is ready too, fully air-conditioned on the downtown campus of Georgia Tech University.

Of course there are glitches - "a new worry every day," says Bob Brennan of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the body responsible for the whole $1.7bn (pounds 1.15bn) enterprise. Latest among them is a legal battle between ACOG and the companies who designed the Olympic stadium about unpaid overtime and an alleged design flaw which brought a bank of floodlights crashing down from a 150ft steel tower last year, killing a welding worker.

There are complaints about the myriad construction sites around the city and the even greater disruptions which lie ahead this summer ("Don't blame me, I voted for Athens," proclaims a best-selling bumpersticker). Price- gouging by hotels and people letting rooms for the Games has drawn loud protest, while ticket sales for some events are sluggish. Then there is the awkward shadow of another local notable, Jimmy Carter, never quite forgiven by the international Olympic movement for the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow games.

And, more basically, does Atlanta's image measure up? For all the city's elan, the 26th Olympiad means global prime time for the Bubba belt, meaning that the Confederate flag, symbol of slavery and Southern obduracy and still part of Georgia's state flag, will be seen on half a billion TV screens around the world. Nor is everyone as insouciant as Atlanta's former mayor, Maynard Jackson, taking his leave four years ago from the splendours of Barcelona. "We don't have the cathedral of the Sagrada Familia," he told reporters, "but we do have the Big Chicken."

In other words, those seeking masterpieces of post-modernist religious architecture must look elsewhere. But for fans of fast food restaurants whose parking lots are graced by 63ft-tall statues of their prime menu item, this is it. Even so, when her big night comes, the southern belle will surely be ready. But she'd better wear a cool dress to the ball.

First and last in any conversation about these games comes the weather - those endless 90-degree, 90 per cent humidity days which add up to July in these parts. Not to put too fine a point on it, Atlanta will be a sweatbath. The organisers have devised a system to keep horses cool, they have shifted the marathon to the kindest hour of 7.05am, and no less than 21 million pounds of ice are already being stockpiled to cool man and beast this summer. But ultimately there is no defeating Mother Nature. "If people don't know it's hot in Atlanta," says Brennan with weary defiance, "they haven't been living on this planet."

It is little known but true that Atlanta considered bidding for the 1984 Games which ultimately went to Los Angeles, setting up an informal group which went to have a look at Montreal, where the 1976 Games had just been held. But potential organisers concluded Atlanta was not ready. So what's the difference between then and now? A bigger city and better infrastructure, explains Brennan - "and Billy Payne".

Payne is ACOG's president, an Atlanta real estate lawyer and one-time college football star for whom the 1996 Games have been a holy mission, and whose life was an unbroken sequence of 18-hour days to ensure that mission succeeded. Payne has business failings, but lack of drive is not among them. Of late, wary of a suspect heart, he has slowed down, no longer arriving at the office at 3.30am to make European morning calls to the IOC in Switzerland. Even so, more than any others perhaps in history, these Olympic Games, for better or worse, are identified with one man.

As 19 July approaches, however, the emphasis is shifting from strategic decisions of the ACOG high command to more mundane matters, like making sure the 70,000 people the Games will employ know what they are supposed to do, and testing out individual facilities. Most of these have already been given dry runs; the showpiece track and field arena will be put through its paces when the official US Olympic team trials are held there next month.

Simultaneously a gigantic marketing exercise gathers speed. Half of Coca- Cola's $1.3bn (pounds 0.87bn) advertising budget for 1996 will be geared to its home-town Games. Souvenirs run from T-shirts and a suitably irritating children's mascot called Izzy (a character from a mythical land inside the Olympic torch, no less) to limited edition Faberge eggs at $5,000 (pounds 3,350) a throw. At the very top of the line are 22-seat luxury boxes at the main stadium for every track and field session, plus the opening and closing ceremonies. A few are still available for a mere $544,500 (pounds 365,500) - food not included.

At best, these games will show only a small profit but, short of some organisational or terrorist calamity, they cannot but be a boon for the city. "By the end of August ACOG will be out of business," Brennan says. "But Atlanta gets a $500m (pounds 335m) legacy: the stadium, the Olympic park, other sports facilities and new university residences. And, by then we're going to be one of the best known places in the world. Less than two dozen cities in the world have done this in 100 years. This is bigger than a World Fair, bigger than the 1994 World Cup, it's the largest peacetime event in the history of the US."