Are you Ready for the Bubbalympics?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

Are you Ready for the Bubbalympics?

With a skybox rife with sponsors and a slate of flashy new events--plus 10,000 supremely gifted athletes--the pinnacle of sports breaks from its past.

By Paul Kvinta

There's a reason they call it Hotlanta. Chances are, if you trek to the Games this summer and loiter at the corner of Peachtree and Tenth Streets, you just may see the Margaret Mitchell House burst into flames. It's a disturbing spectacle, yet not infrequent. Arsonists most recently torched the place last May--as they had during 1994 and 1985--just as a $4.5 million restoration of the 100-year-old Tudor building neared completion. The city's response? A collective shrug and a yawn. Make no mistake about it: Atlanta, home of CNN, Coca-Cola, and the world champion Braves, is way too busy reinventing itself to fret over Old South history, particularly something as awkwardly significant as the birthplace of Gone with the Wind. Ignore it, restore it, burn it, whatever. This, friends, is the capital of the New South. It takes something big and flashy to flourish here. Something very much like the 1996 Summer Games, a spectacle that we hereby christen the New Olympics.

Don't get us wrong. These Games will spill over with all the elements you crave each quadrennium. Passion. Drama. Soul-lifting victories and heart-crunching defeats. And, yes, intrigue. Will the Chinese swimmers test positive? Can Carl Lewis, the grand old man of track and field, blaze back for more gold? Will tanned beach volleyball demigods Nancy Reno and Holly McPeak be able to keep their partnership squabbles off of the world stage? And what of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the planet's greatest athlete? Will she hotfoot it to another heptathlon gold? Certainly it's enough to ensure that we'll all be sidling up to our TV sets with scorecards in grip, cheering lustily for our sweating countrymen and learning to twang "y'all" in support of our Southern hosts.

But like Atlanta itself, these New Olympics are flummoxed by history. Never mind that this version resembles not even faintly that modest festival staged in Athens 100 years ago. These Games also deviate sharply from Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona even. For starters, mountain biking has been added, as has beach volleyball. And to feed the gaping maw of television, style will finally supersede substance. Technicians have installed digital video playback systems into the basketball venues, the better to calculate the "hang time" of every dunk. Silicon chips have been tucked inside the hull of every yacht and allegedly in the shoelaces of every marathoner, so television viewers can follow along on "digital maps." NBC has readied a 1,700-piece musical library (every artist from Billy Ray Cyrus to, uh-oh, John Tesh) using the headings "victory," "defeat," "determination," "drama," and "Olympic spirit" to speed selection, facilitating a New Olympics that will doubtless seem like one endless, slow-motion music video.

"This is going to be the most watched event in the history of the world!" hoots Billy Payne, hyperkinetic CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. "Probably the largest and most important event of the twentieth century."

Enthusiasm aside, Payne has spent the last eight years working to keep his event from becoming the Bubba Games. On the physical front, he has largely succeeded. Twelve frantic months of dust, concrete, and rerouted traffic have given birth to a handsome Olympic stadium, a $50 million Centennial Olympic Park, and a potentially revitalized downtown area. Apart from the death of a stadium riveter, the mishaps have been minor: the sinking of the foundation of an athletes' dormitory in the Olympic Village and the smash-up of the 1960 Cadillac perched high above the entrance to the Hard Rock Caf‹, which tumbled while being moved for pre-Games buffing.

Culturally, though, Payne has been a half-step too slow with his Handi Wipes to cleanse gaffes that unfortunately reinforce certain Southern stereotypes. First came Izzy, the bug-eyed, blue alien creature that the ACOG adopted as the Olympic mascot and that Eastern journalists immediately dubbed Bubba the Blue Slug. "As far as we're concerned, Izzy isn't," fumed a spokesman for one company that yanked millions of dollars of Izzy-related products from its catalogs after the mascot failed to catch on in the weeks leading up to the Games. Then there was the ACOG employee who insisted over the phone to a gentleman in New Mexico that he'd have to purchase tickets through his country's embassy. Payne attempted triage where he could. When suburban Cobb County passed the nation's first anti-gay resolution in 1993, stating that "the homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes," the ACOG yanked the volleyball venue from Cobb and rerouted the Olympic torch run around the county. And when the Los Angeles Times reported that an "unnamed" ACOG employee had asked Los Angeles officials to "cover up" anatomically correct statues standing outside the L.A. Coliseum, where the torch run began, Payne vehemently denied that the incident took place.

For better or worse, Payne and the ACOG are trying to keep pace with an event that continues to metamorphose, dramatically, every four years. This may be most apparent in the athletes themselves. The Joyner-Kersees, Lewises, and Janet Evanses seem to be passing the torch to a different breed: the New Olympian. This person, like those who came before, is part great athlete and part telegenic millionaire-pitchman-in-waiting. But now, in the post-Deion Sanders, post-Dennis Rodman era, there are two additional requirements: attitude and a shtick. Expect to see plenty of self-doubting mountain biker Tinker Juarez, whose wild mop of hair hasn't been so much as trimmed since high school. And beach volleyballer Kent Steffes, whose "Anger is a Gift" tattoo is almost as intimidating as his blistering spike. Then, of course, there's perhaps the ultimate example of the new species: 16-year-old swimming diva Brooke Bennett, who's likely to cajole, manipulate, and even trash-talk a flashy swath through the competition--and her own teammates--to a medal in the 800 meters and possibly a raft of lucrative endorsement deals.

Ah, change. Out with old, in with the new. Don't fight these New Olympics. Celebrate them. Just leaven them by settling in with some of the timeless events, like Greco-Roman wrestling. Four years from now, in Australia, you'll again be confronted with something even more unrecognizable, an Even Newer Olympics. At those Games, which may very well include street luge, sky surfing, and body sculpting, mountain bike downhiller Missy Giove--pierced, braided, and tattooed--may well stand atop the winners' platform as our typical American representative. And we'll love her.

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