Atlanta’s Olympic gains

The Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 saw architecture and design used to capture the essence of the event. Janice Kirkpatrick despairs at this year’s attempt in Atlanta and wonders why we have veered so dramatically from celebration to commercialisation

WHILE watching the opening ceremony of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics, I wondered, with mounting incredulity, if corporate America was taking the piss or if the noble gravity of this historic occasion had finally, totally, leached away.

The Olympic Games is arguably the last remaining celebration of a classical living event in contemporary times. As such, this theatre of sport is played out against a backdrop of architecture which lends the whole affair an ennobling demeanour. This superior ambience urges us to strive for better ideals, transcending the debris of trivial, cynical, commercial ephemera which threatens to engulf our modern lives.

The Olympic flame is the ultimate purifier, the spirit of the games and the essence of the Olympic ideal. Fired by the rays of the sun at the site of the original Olympic Stadium, the flame is borne around the world by many athletes before finally being allowed to burn for the duration of the games. The flame is a beacon to all who marvel and a warning to those who do not heed its purifying light. The Olympic aspiration is the absolute antithesis of commercial exploitation and short-term gain – a rare and distinctive ideal in our present world, especially in Atlanta.

Atlanta’s firegrate was a French fries carton elevated on scaffolding poles amid a sea of sportswear logos. The only thing that remained of the Olympic spirit was a schmaltzy show with a prologue resembling the unnecessary epilogue tacked on to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Past Olympic greats were not fondly remembered for their magnificent achievements, that which made them special people. Old athletes were paraded in front of millions of viewers who marvelled at their descent into decrepitude.

The 1996 games bore more resemblance to the TV programme Gladiators than to the ultimate gladiatorial test of death and glory – classically pure bred and ideologically steadfast.

The shock of seeing Atlanta after the milestone of Barcelona beggared belief. Barcelona had serious contemporary architecture and a deliberate lack of showground glitz. Every aspect of the Catalonian games was controlled through careful use of architecture and design: from the elegant Foster communications tower to the stadium in Montjuic and Javier Mariscal’s mascot, Cobi. For Barcelona the Olympic Games were a force for renewal and lasting change. They didn’t solve every social problem but they did succeed in reclaiming huge tracts of the inner city for its inhabitants and gave the city a waterfront and beach.

In contrast, it’s difficult to imagine what might be left for the citizens of Atlanta, the US capital of handgun deaths and home of Coca Cola. Maybe there’ll be a park on Peachtree? Some new Portman architecture? But certainly no public gain on the scale of that achieved in Catalonia.

As I watched the UK’s fragile performance in the US, I became convinced that over-commercialisation was ruining the spirit of the Olympic Games. As with petrol stations, graphic design in the guise of advertising had supplanted architecture. Sportswear was dominated by fashion which was, in turn, thinly disguised advertising. The not-very-hidden-agenda of the games was to make money out of sport in a country which, poor ticket sales tell us, isn’t even interested in track and field events.

Maybe the Olympic Games can’t happen in today’s world where cash is king, sportswear is merely fashionable and kids won’t exercise or concentrate on anything longer than a commercial break. Maybe the architects and designers in Atlanta should have tried harder. The Barcelona games enriched Catelonian culture and persuaded the world that Barcelona was the place to visit. I won’t hurry to buy my ticket to Atlanta.

Last week Ireland gave its team a welcome home for heroes. Streets were strewn with flags and bunting, despite the rain. At London’s Heathrow Airport the British team arrived to no welcome or thanks for trying their best, not even a sportswear manufacturer turned up.

In the UK it seems sportsmen and women have lots in common with architects and designers – no commitment from Government, no investment and no strategic planning. Maybe we should sit down together and work things out.

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