Atlanta Isn't Feeling Olympic

So long, Lillehammer. The next Olympic stop: Atlanta, which--to put it mildly--isn't quite ready.

In September, 1990, Atlanta won a long-shot bid to host the 1996 centennial Summer Games. Now look at the place: A crumbling infrastructure, racial controversy, even bigotry against gays are the talk of the town. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games has backed off its early revenue forecasts and is behind on construction and sponsorship sales.

The kicker: An incipient taxpayer revolt that threatens to leave Atlanta unprepared for the wear and tear caused by the games. In a March referendum, still too close to call, voters will decide on a $149 million bond issue to repair streets, bridges, and sewers. It's not an academic issue: A water main broke downtown the week the Super Bowl came to town; a sinkhole opened the day after the game. "Those are ominous bookends," warns Mayor Bill Campbell.

A bill that would have hiked Georgia's sales tax to rebuild infrastructure died when legislators questioned the need to spruce up for Olympic guests. Atlanta Olympics Chief Billy Payne argues that the repairs are needed, games or not. "We'd have to repair these things even if we're just hosting a Boy Scout meeting," he says. "Shame on us as a city if we don't."

But Payne has other problems. He's trying to steer clear of the protest by African Americans against the Olympic use of the Georgia state flag and its Confederate stars and bars. And there's a protest by gay-rights activists against playing Olympic volleyball in suburban Cobb County, which recently passed an ordinance criticizing the "gay lifestyle."

HOT PLUSH. Then there's the money. Payne is feverishly pulling in the last major sponsorships, negotiating TV deals, and over- seeing construction on a $209 million Olympic stadium and other projects. The organizing committee, which budgeted a $16 million profit last year, now expects only to break even. A contingency fund has shrunk from $100 million to $60 million. Budget constraints could force building cutbacks.

Even so, there's room for optimism.

The committee's projections assume that only 62% of 10 million tickets will be sold. If, as seems likely, Atlanta matches the 83% sales figure of the 1984 games in Los Angeles, it would win $91 million in new revenue. The broadcasting success at Lillehammer should boost rights sales in Japan, Canada, and other countries beyond the current budget of $125 million. And licensing contracts worth $50 million already have matched Barcelona's total.

Credit that success mostly to Izzy. Jeered when he appeared at the Barcelona closing ceremonies in 1992, the computer-generated bright-blue mascot now boasts a cartoon show in development, a fan club, and more than $1.7 million worth of merchandise sales. When the character appeared on the QVC network on Feb. 27, 1,009 plush dolls sold out in just eight minutes. Even in Lillehammer, Payne saw Norwegians carrying Izzy mascots. "They just love that little guy," Payne grins. Now, if only Atlanta taxpayers would get in the spirit.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.