A Sociological Autobiography: 37 – Olympics in Atlanta

By | October 28, 2014

As the summer of 1996 approached, American friends Dick Levinson and Mike McQuaide suggested that we consider visiting Atlanta for the Olympic Games. Mike, in particular, was adamant that we should. The subtext was his desire to exit Atlanta even as we would enter it. We could stay in his house and he in ours, he pleaded. And so it came to be. Dick put in for, acquired and paid for tickets to multiple events while Mike packed for exile. Half the Scamblers encamped in Mike’s house just beyond the outskirts of the city.

It is worth briefly setting the Atlanta Games into historical context. The Games in Los Angeles in 1984 had heralded an important transition. As Gruneau puts it, ‘they are best understood as a more fully developed expression of the incorporation of sporting practice into the ever-expanding marketplace of international capitalism’. In the no-nonsense commercial terminology of the IOC, they paid their way (and some). The key protagonist and entrepreneur, Ueberroth, was able to pay himself a bonus of $475,000 out of a staggering overall surplus of $200 million. After follow-up pay-your-way, if less jingoistic, Games in Seoul and Barcelona much was expected of Atlanta.

The award of the Games to Atlanta, capital of the ‘New South’, had in fact been controversial. Nor were the preparations without a political hiccup or two. Relations between Atlanta’s organizing committee, on which local entrepreneur Billy Payne served with unabated and disconcerting enthusiasm, and both the IOC and the American NOC, were fraught to the point of multiple handwringing in the early stages. Only with Bill Campbell’s election as Mayor and Coca Cola CEO Robert Goizueta’s commercial ‘call to arms’ did things begin to fall into place: the principal source of revenue, the broadcasting rights, were sold for £568 million and smiles replaced grimaces.

Were the Games considered successful? Well, who are the judges? On a broader plane, there were positives and negatives. On the positive side, the books were balanced; 2.5 billion TV viewers were scooped up worldwide and the Scamblers were enthused and contented. And negatively? Well, if you fail to prioritise and cosset the press you are going to suffer for it: bungled accommodation and transportation made headlines.

As for my part? For the Scamblers as a whole the experience was mixed up with the delight of revisiting old friends, not only Mike and Dick but Terry Boswell and Karen Hegtvedt and their families. Courtesy of Dick’s relentlessly generous pursuit of tickets we circulated between stadia and filled our collective boots. Ok, maybe we should not have leapt to our feet and yelled ‘yes’ when the USA lost at volleyball. For me the track-and-field competition provided the highlights. I witnessed Johnson and Perec, who strolled through the preliminaries in the 200 and 400 metres for men and women respectively (Johnson went on to set an astonishing world record of 19.32 seconds for the 200 metres in the final). I also saw Jamaica’s immortal Merlene Ottey, who captured two silver medals to add to her Olympic collection of ten finals and two silver and five bronze medals.

But I was a sociologist too, and a visiting one among more informed local sociologists. So I listened and learned amidst the pleasures. What the Olympics in Atlanta did is bring the city’s citizenry out on to the streets, rendering both all the safer. Our friends emphasized that we were walking where nobody normally walked. What we were revelling in was exceptional. What we relished was in fact Atlanta pretending to be what it was and is not, a festival in the guise of a community. Odd moments of violence notwithstanding, the Olympic Park was an illuminated, noisy and inviting family entertainment hub.

Dick’s hugely talented daughter Holly had completed a research dissertation on Atlanta’s preparations for the Games. What she had discovered – and my examples come from memory here – was at the very least twofold. First, the Atlanta authorities gave ‘undesirables’ like the unsightly homeless one-way tickets out of town; and second, the same authorities circled the Olympic venues with new builds that disguised the less desirable or pimpled housing on their backsides. These are, I suspect, routine city insurance during what have become global mega-events.

I was left with another lasting impression or two. The posters hung on Atlanta’s walls insisted that in the Games as in life there are winners and losers (silver and bronze medals carry stigmata). They should have added that only American gold medallists require to be celebrated. The reigning 100 metres champion, Linford Christie, was disqualified during the qualifying rounds, although we knew nothing of this since bulletins omitted to mention it. Much TV time was devoted, however, to US athletes whose relatives had died prematurely and recently of cancer: it was jingoism adorned by a very non-European blanket of sentimentality. Just as Americans are left uninformed about peoples beyond their perimeters, so they are exhorted to acknowledge only home- bred heroes. Of course the American sporting ‘wise’ (Goffman’s term) see through, and for all I know may resent, this profitable home-spun and populist screening process; but they are the few.

None of this comprises a criticism of Americans. As I shall elaborate when recounting Annette’s and my return to Atlanta in 1998 to teach a semester at Emory University the default position of most Americans, at least in our experience, is a generous helpfulness. But agency and culture alike are structured (if not structurally determined) in this vast splintered territory as elsewhere. Like many an American as well as other ‘alien’ sociologists I wish reflexivity came more naturally and spontaneously to its citizenry. If Americans spoke a language other than English we in Britain would surely take more trouble to understand them.


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