What Rio Should Have Learned From Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympics

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It was a different time, but here’s what the city got right.

Kabir Sehgal is the author of Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us. He was previously a vice president at JPMorgan.

As this year’s summer Olympics kicked off Friday night in Rio de Janeiro, all eyes are on a city struggling with a terrible economy and health care crisis. The games are over budget and underselling: The expected cost of $12 billion is expected to swell to nearly $20 billion, and 30% of tickets were unsold a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Zika virus outbreak has tourists shying away from visiting; Brazil is in the midst of a terrible recession, and its president is facing impeachment.

It didn’t have to be this way. Rio’s Olympic officials couldn’t have changed the country’s political, economic, or health fortunes, but they could have done more to set up the games for success by learning from previous games.

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Twenty summers ago, my sister and I had the experience of a lifetime. We ran the Olympic torch in Atlanta, Ga., she passing it to me on July 18, the day before the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. Because my family was involved in helping the city win the bid to host the games, not only were we afforded this unique opportunity, but we got to see the inner-workings of how the games were organized. While these games were formative for me as a young person, they were also transformational for Atlanta. And while outsiders may point to the bombing as a lasting memory of these games, know that in the words of a former Atlanta mayor, “I don’t know anybody in Atlanta who didn’t think the Olympics were good.” Indeed, Atlanta’s Olympics were mostly privately funded, profitable, and made a positive and lasting economic impact. Here are three things Rio 2016 could have learned from Atlanta 1996:

Begin with securing support

In a recent poll, almost two-thirds of Brazilians think the Olympics will be harmful to the country. The same feeling is particularly acute in the areas around Rio de Janeiro. That the Olympics are registering such a poor opinion among the public isn’t shocking, considering the country is going through a dismal economic period. Recently, police officers and teachers have taken to the streets to protest the games with embarrassing signs that read “Welcome to Hell” and “No money for public education.” Rio’s Olympics were largely an idea that was hatched, supported, and funded by Brazil’s government.

By contrast, Atlanta’s 1996 games had local buy-in from the beginning. That’s because the dream to host the games didn’t originate from a government official but private citizen, real estate lawyer Billy Payne, in 1987. He went around the city, drumming up support for the games, eventually enlisting the help of then-mayor Andrew Young. Atlanta’s bid for the games cost $7.3 million, which was the least among all but one of the finalist cities like Athens and Melbourne, and most of the funds came from corporations and private citizens.

As a matter of civic pride, local companies added a section to their bills so that customers could “opt-in” to fund the city’s Olympic bid. Because it was a locally-inspired and led initiative, Atlantans took pride and arguably helped win the games with their “y’all come back now” Southern hospitality. For example, members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who hailed from Africa, visited local African Americans who ran companies in Atlanta.




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