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What If Atlanta Never Hosted the Olympics?

Here on “what if” week, Akshay and Jake take a look at what Tech would look like without the city’s seminal sporting event.

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Atlanta from Tech Square
Jake Grant

Well, this week has been a busy week for yours truly in the From the Rumble Seat history department. Moving back to Atlanta mid-pandemic will do that to you, but we couldn’t resist getting to talk about at least one of the literal dozens of hypotheticals we pitched in the FTRS slack to talk about as a part of SB Nation’s “what if” theme for the week. While everyone and their brother asks the obvious “What If Tech Never Left the SEC?” question, we think that friend of the site Matt Brown did a fine job looking at that in his book appropriately titled “What If? A Closer Look at College Football’s Great Questions” which I definitely am not shilling for, why would you ever ask, so, in the interest of sparing you 20,000 words on a variety of topics, Akshay and I settled on asking what Tech (and Atlanta) would look like without the Centennial Olympic Games. - Jake

Thinking about Atlanta without the influence of the Olympic Games makes me sad, but we do what we must for the #content. Please enjoy this adventure at my own expense. - Akshay

Well, then-president G. Wayne Clough summed up the whole premise pretty well when he said, “We got rid of some trees that we didn’t want. We replaced them with better trees.” End of story, that was easy. Tech would have worse trees! Boom. Now go read the Technical Tidbits and think about what would have happened if Tech didn’t fire Steve Spurrier back in his not-quite-yet-Head-Ball-Coach days when Pepper Rodgers got the axe while Akshay and I pat ourselves on the back for a job mediocrely done (really par for the course for us).

But, of course, like everything, it’s not quite that simple.

When we were first brainstorming “What If” ideas, this one was one of the first to come to mind. Of course, sitting a couple miles outside of Chicago is a little bit different than my current vista while I write this introduction. In my new apartment, I have a rather impressive view of the cityscape of Midtown and Downtown Atlanta. In front of me, Tech Square spills into North Avenue, while a bootleg ripoff of the real Olympic torch keeps a stately watch over the Downtown Connector. Just to its right rise the six mid-rise buildings of the North Avenue Apartments complex, which frame the Ferris Wheel, Civil Rights Center, Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and the light towers of Centennial Olympic Park. The westward view is dominated by the gracefully sloping roof of the Tech Campus Recreation Center, while the tip of the Kessler Campanile peaks over the roof of the large undergrad classroom and laboratory building named for Clough. It really goes without saying that all the stuff listed would likely not exist without the Olympics, and certainly not in its current form. Despite it being the most prominent aspect of day-to-day interactions, the city and campus’ physical plant is just one lens through which we look at the effects of the Olympics. Arguably, the non-architectural effects are more significant.

Without the 1996 Olympics, there’s a non-zero chance the Braves are no longer in Atlanta (current jokes about their county of residence notwithstanding). In our timeline, the team was already disgruntled with its time at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium (AFCS), and after some closed-door negotiations, the Atlanta Committee on the Olympic Games (ACOG) agreed to let them convert the newly-built Olympic Stadium into a ballpark after the summer of 1996. But the absence of the Olympic Stadium in our alternate universe begs the question: where would the Braves go? If we assume that the start of construction of the Olympic Stadium in 1993 is moving day for our alt-Braves, there seems to be a number of available options in the South: Tampa didn’t get the Rays until 1998 and had previously courted the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants for residence in their Suncoast Dome, and other traditional Southern Association-type cities like Nashville, Birmingham, and Charlotte stand out as nearby alternatives. The Braves’ relocation options are most likely bound by the Turner Broadcasting System territory, given that, at this point, the franchise is still owned by Ted Turner and co. Of course, given Turner’s ownership, there’s a chance the team wouldn’t (or rather, couldn’t) leave, but it seems reasonable enough to suggest that ol’ Ted gets antsy enough about lagging stadium revenues and amenities that the whole “let’s give a baseball team $400 million in tax revenue for free to build a stadium” thing happens a couple of decades earlier. (This begs the question: would Ted Turner extort an entire county like Liberty Media did? Would the county be as amenable to it? To be clear, Turner was a maven in his own right, but frisking a county government of that much money might be a bit much, even for a man of his caliber.)

As for the Georgia Dome and the continued existence of the Falcons, the Dome was approved in 1989 and opened in 1992, thanks in part to “Rankin Smith, founding owner of the Atlanta Falcons, [threatening] to move the team to Jacksonville, Florida, if Atlanta did not present a deal for a new stadium by 1991.” (For you youths out there, the Jaguars are only a recent invention, having been founded in 1995.) Since the Olympic vote was in 1990, it seems likely the Dome is still there (and its home team still deplorably mediocre... sigh). However, one of the interesting things reading back on the IOC and USOC decisions is how intertwined the development of the Dome and the Olympics were. Would it take the same shape without them? That’s an interesting question. Much as construction of AFCS was a major plank of Ivan Allen’s mayoral campaign, growing Atlanta as a convention city is a big part of mayor Andrew Young and governor Joe Frank Harris’ tenures. Thus, big dreams for a big dome probably continue. AFCS was a large venue for baseball, but for football, it was small and lacked luxury boxes to sell to rich Atlantans and their companies. The Georgia Dome could top all of that, while adding to the convention capabilities of the Georgia World Congress Center. Seen holistically, with its great transportation links, facilities capabilities, and the intrinsically convention-adjacent nature of large sporting events like the Super Bowl, Final Four, bowl and conference championship games, and the like, it seems that these would have been prioritized as much, if not more so, with the loss of the Olympic bid.

Could the Braves taken a page out of Smith’s book and moved to Jacksonville instead? It’s possible, but, for similar reasons to the other cities, not that likely. Would the Falcons still get sold to the Blank family? Looking at Smith’s commitment to the team and/or city, that’s probably an eventuality as well. His existence with the Falcons in their current form seemed tenuous, so it would probably make sense that he would still want out. Even owners extremely committed to a cause (see later: Ted Turner and the NHL) still wash out. And does MBS get built within 25 years of the opening of the Dome? Probably. Though the Olympics changed a lot about Atlanta’s stature (more on that later), if the Georgia Dome still exists, the Falcons still exist, and so does the city’s long standing obsession with shiny new construction projects and hosting events. As for Atlanta United, well, large, untapped markets will always draw the allure of major sports leagues, and considering Blank still owns the Falcons in this alternate reality, they’d probably also still exist in some form. Though the stadium would probably not be as ostentatiously as it ended up being, Blank wanted the newest, shiniest stadium to keep up with the (literal) Joneses. Across the street, with the Omni rusting badly in the Atlanta humidity and the intense lust Ted Turner had to get the NHL back into Atlanta (despite the league’s refusal to give him a franchise unless the Omni was replaced because of the aforementioned of lack of luxury boxes), it is likely that the center of gravity for Atlanta sports stays in that neighborhood. The Thrashers still come to a brand-new Philips Arena, the Hawks still play their oddball years in the Georgia Dome and Alexander Memorial Coliseum, and the Falcons are still playing in either a renovated 25-year old Georgia Dome or a new stadium nearby. For all the reputation MARTA has as not really going anywhere useful, it helps that the infrastructure tying at least of of the rest of the city to the GWCC already exists. In fact, the presence of MARTA at all was considered a selling point in favor of giving Atlanta the Olympics, though the bidding didn’t really help Atlanta expand the system [grumbles loudly], so not much would have likely changed there. Though the expansion of the North Line into the Georgia 400 median opened in 1996, it reflected the original MARTA plans, and the highway was being planned well into the 1980s, so, really, not much change.

Meanwhile, in Midtown, Tech does look different. Of course, we already touched on the obvious physical changes like the CRC, West Campus, and North Avenue, but other things are just as important. Though Tech had existed as a prominent technology school and nationally-relevant on the sports scene, it has a definite underdog streak in its general existence. Whether that’s in relation to other schools, other teams, politics, or state funding, that’s taken many lenses over the years. Thus, something as seemingly-minor as making the cutting-edge presentation with 3D renderings of potential Atlanta Olympic facilities was crucial as a selling point for the school. Tech, a school that was looking for ways to demonstrate excellence and become more nationally relevant, got a particularly exciting talking point.

As for sports, it is almost a certainty that women’s swimming and diving, as well as the aquatic club teams, owe their existence to the Olympic natatorium and the much-improved pool space. For whatever reason, the rather ordinarily sized facilities at the Student Activity Center weren’t built at the American standard size, and the space was limited, which meant the men’s varsity team was still practicing in the positively ancient Heisman Gym, which was razed for Callaway Plaza around 1994. With nowhere suitable to practice, the men’s team is in doubt, while it is unlikely that the women’s team exists. Georgia Tech sits in a prominent spot in American swimming culture, as the site of the Games, sure, but as the home of the largest meet outside Olympic Trials, frequent host of the largest independent meet in the country, College Club Swimming’s national championship, regular host of the NCAA championship, and countless significant USA Swimming events. With no Olympics, all of that goes away. One of the fastest pools on the planet is gone, and with it, Tech’s lofty and position in the sport, which is often under appreciated by those outside the sport.

1990 to 1994 is arguably the halcyon era for Tech sports. It’s the reason we look back on Homer Rice with the utmost fondness, the lengthy tenure of Bobby Cremins with a nostalgic smile, and the reason why Bobby Ross, despite his short tenure, is still a revered Tech coach — it still happens, Olympics or not.

A significant question is did Tech invest in sports infrastructure using Olympic funds? The answer is largely yes. Alexander Memorial is a significant one here, outside of the obvious aquatics facility. Do the funds not used on west campus construction get used on sports? Tech had to do a lot of borrowing against the money they were given to even construct the Olympic housing. Leveraging the Institute to build 16,000 or so housing units is a lot of money, and took a lot more cash than they had on hand. As Clough feared, it did leave Tech holding the proverbial bag. They had a campus not necessarily in shambles, but one thoroughly used by their guests, brand new dorms to fix, a fantastic pool that was essentially useless in the wintertime, and a stadium for water polo taking up valuable land dedicated to a sport Tech did not even sponsor.

It took a significant amount of money to “clean up” the effects of the Olympics. Sure, the Campanile was nice, but reconfiguring the facilities west of Ferst Drive took a significant amount of time and money, even if they did net an absolutely gorgeous end product. Things like Stamps Field, integral to student life today, replaced the redundant water polo facilities, and the extra bleachers were replaced with a well-used parking deck. The perk is keeping the pool. But what if they hadn’t? What if they doubled down on the SAC and cut loose varsity swimming anyways, Olympics or not?

Interestingly, that would put Tech is under the ACC sports minimum, so what gets added? It’s really easy to sit here and parrot the four obvious answers of today:

  • Women’s Golf, since we already have the facilities and, despite having never gotten over the hump on the men’s side, a rich tradition, probably the richest of any school never to win it all. The thing is, though, that we didn’t have the golf facilities we do now back then, and Tech was still very male-dominated, so the scholarship breakdown wasn’t really an issue.
  • Women’s Beach Volleyball, well, it didn’t exist even as a glimmer in anyone’s eye as an NCAA sport back then, so no.
  • Women’s Soccer, which would have filled an obvious gap, albeit a gap that was far less obvious before the current USWNT golden age and, again, wasn’t so much of a scholarship issue back then. However, Tech is the reason the “ACC schools must have a women’s soccer or volleyball team” rule exists, as Tech is the only school that lacks the former, and none lack that latter.
  • Men’s Lacrosse, which has been the strongest club team for a long time, though was much younger back then. Lacrosse, a somewhat niche sport today, has seen explosive growth in the decades since the Olympics, though it would have had the advantage of joining a small but reputable league back in the early 1990s, where competing in a tiny conference would benefit an upstart program in terms of being able to pull two upsets and win a conference title, or the like.

Though men’s soccer, women’s lacrosse, and men’s hockey are all strong programs today, it is rather hard to determine what would fill the void left by swimming. Wrestling, a sport with a sporadic history at Tech, had only been dead since 1989, and with a decent recognition value and small space it took up, likely within the already-existent AMC, probably would have been an easy choice in the short term.

Do the construction projects of the turn of the millennium happen using Olympic funds from the use of McAuley and AMC? Knowing how much Tech had to put in for what it got out, probably not, at least for that specific reason. Not to say the Olympics weren’t generous, but it’s not like Tech got rich in the process here. A huge cost, not guaranteed to be recouped, was put into hosting the Olympics. When the music stopped, it was Tech that was already tasked with putting the pieces together in a way that made sense. Things like a tennis complex or softball stadium had to come independently of that.

As for Atlanta as a whole, there’s so much infrastructure in the city that just doesn’t get built. The Olympics spurred the compromise that yielded Freedom Park and Parkway, instead of a vacant, overgrown grassy lot just outside of downtown. Atlanta’s tourist district doesn’t exist without the Games; neither does Kasim Reed’s pet project, the Atlanta Streetcar; nor does Centennial Olympic Park. Adjacent to Downtown Atlanta would remain a subpar warehouse district off of the railroad tracks until the middle 00s, when someone decided that there was money to be made if they could gentrify the [Styx] out of the area. It’s entirely possible we get the trendy hip millennial stuff that we have now along Centennial Olympic Park Drive and West Midtown in a new neighborhood somewhat reminiscent of Denver’s LoDo. The plans for the Gulch would assumedly come along at some point, but it would be at least a decade delayed (though, to be fair, those are still yet to be built). With no park, there’s likely no Aquarium — the catalyst for the district — meaning the World of Coke stays in Underground Atlanta (which itself was heavily sanitized much like Chicago’s Navy Pier in the early 1990s) and the Civil Rights Center and the College Football Hall of Fame don’t move into the neighborhood either.

Atlanta would also not have as much international investment, considering the Games put Atlanta on the world map. Though a well-traveled rumor was that Coca Cola and sketchy monetary wheeling and dealing are what clinched the event for the city, it really wasn’t a place many companies outside of local ones were making large investments in. Atlanta was a southern power with a large airport, which was at the time of bidding the primary hub for not one but two significant American legacy airlines, and recently expanded into one of the newest, most efficient terminals in the world, but think about how many companies are here now. In 1996, the concept of Tech Square existed only in Clough’s mind and the colloquialism that walking past the Cheetah was the safest place to be a pedestrian in Midtown was still highly relevant. ATV, ATDC, Thyssenkrupp, NCR, Siemens, Black and Decker, Norfolk Southern, Anthem, and more are all here because they want to tap into Tech talent, be near to the airport, and investing in large projects for relatively cheap while still in a major city. Tech would still be here. The airport would, too. But what put Atlanta, its universities, and way of living on the world stage? The 1996 Olympics. That’s what made Atlanta from a strong American city to a globally relevant one.

Without the Games, Atlanta probably looks like a slightly larger cross of Charlotte and Birmingham. Charlotte represents a city of shiny new growth, while Birmingham was an older industrial and logistical Southern hub. Atlanta, Games or not, has more to give in terms of pre-existing size, young talent, and in its combination of air, ground, and rail transportation than either of the two, and that would stay that way. But the outpouring of investment into the city, the publication of its many benefits, and the boost to its reputation are hard to ignore.

The city’s skyline today is rapidly changing. Tech is a part of that in a metaphorical way, producing graduates who change the city and the world, and a physical way, best exemplified by alumnus John Portman’s last project anchoring the Tech Square section of the Atlanta panorama. Portman graduated long before the Olympics. Tech Tower has sat on a hill overlooking downtown since 1888. But the rest of the sweeping vista laid out before us from our perch above the city? A lot of that owes its existence either directly or indirectly to the Atlanta Olympic Games. For what they did not change about the actual landscape, they provided great strides in the perception of the city, its civic identity in an era of change and growth, and its investment from locals, others in the region, and of those from across the globe.

So, what do you think? Do you miss Clough’s trees? Are the Olympics really the seminal moment in Atlanta sports history? Should I add another hot take here so more people get angsty and comment? Let us know below!