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The Enduring Tragedy of the Atlanta Olympics

Revisiting of the banal, dystopian reality of 1996, while thinking about LA84.

The subject of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, is the Centennial Olympic Park bombing that shook the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. The movie has been received with a current of skepticism and some downright outrage, not unlike most of the 89-year-old director’s politically-inspired work. It should not come as a surprise that a self-proclaimed libertarian (who once dropped a full solliloquy on an empty chair at the Republican National Convention) made a dumb movie with off-putting politics.

What’s more unsettling is the topic, a revisiting of this specific place — the banal, dystopian reality of what those 1996 Olympics were. A domestic terrorist attack is but one of a score of tragedies that befell the host city: that bombing killed two people and injured 111 others, very far from the true body count that hangs on these Summer Games. The 1996 Olympics permanently damaged Atlanta, because the Olympics itself is a machine for global embezzlement and displacement. It’s the last time that the Olympics were held in this country — for now, with Los Angeles’ bid for 2028 looming on another city that just can’t afford to host this expensive, destructive party.

A successful Olympic Bid meant that metropolitan Atlanta was suddenly getting a makeover after decades of “white flight.” What had become a “Black Mecca” was thrown into rapid civic transformation, all under the watch of the city’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Construction began on condos and lofts amid an affordable housing crisis. $350 million in public funds were spent before the event even started. Hip-hop outfits like Goodie Mob and Outkast were going gold and ushering in a cultural renaissance, while Coca-Cola and SunTrust tagged downtown buildings with grotesquely-excessive Olympic corporate sponsorship.

The people running the whole effort comprised a group called the Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority, or, MAOGA (hmmmmm). With a staggering budget, MAOGA had the power to assemble a police force, distribute contracts, buy and sell land, lend money, acquire eminent domain, and even summon in the troops. Police chief Eldrin Bell, a hot-headed “tough on crime” nut, was given a staggering amount of sheer authority. Goodie Mob labeled him crooked and threw up the middle finger on “Git Up, Git Out.”

MAOGA had no shortage of allies in this political project. The privately-operated “Atlanta Committee” was made up of developers and commercial goliaths. Together, these groups established an “Olympic Ring” of neighborhoods considered, well, unattractive to visitors, unsuitable for a host city. Thus began an aggressive effort to privatize public housing, in areas that had been deliberately starved of city services to begin with. More than 2,000 public units were bulldozed down. Stock was completely demolished in Techwood/Clark-Howell, among other major Atlanta housing complexes, and the redeveloped properties were sold off at “market price.” Before the Games, Techwood housed thousands of low-income residents; after Olympic renovations, it became the privately-owned Centennial Place, the same year that Outkast proudly shouted out the Techwood project on their album ATLiens.

It’s during the peak of Olympic city planning when Goodie Mob drops a single called “Dirty South.” The hook pulled no punches: “one to da two da three da four, dem dirty Red Dogs done hit the door, and they got everybody on they hands and knees, and they ain’t gonna leave until they find them keys.”

The menacing delivery calls to mind the most ruthless of gangs, the most daunting and bloodthirsty of enemies. That is exactly what the Red Dogs were. Allegedly an acronym for “Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia,” the Red Dog Anti-Drug Task Force was so inescapably powerful that Cee-Lo, Big Gipp and the rest of Atlanta’s rising music scene saw it as the singular epitome of the Dirty South they lived through. Led by the aforementioned Eldrin Bell, the commission was started in 1989 alongside federal War on Drugs legislation, and it was ratcheted up as Atlanta scaled its efforts to become a “world-class Olympic city.” With free reign and a juiced-up budget, the Red Dogs were emboldened to hit the door all across the city.

The logical conclusion to such policy would be a police force that fatally shoots 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston before planting drugs in her house, or descends upon a gay bar like a fully-loaded SWAT team, or raids 21 Savage and his team on the morning of another National Special Security Event hosted in Atlanta. The solution to the city’s poverty and homelessness was to sweep people into prisons, conveniently located far from the Olympic Village. In addition to the Red Dogs, Atlanta police and another privately-funded unit called the Olympic Ambassadors were targeting and locking up the unhoused. Officers were allegedly mass-producing blank arrest citations with the pre-printed information, “African-American, male, homeless.” The entire operation was ruled unconstitutional in 1998. And yet, to salt the wounds, the dwindling public housing options in Atlanta were declared inaccessible to applicants with a criminal record.

What noble outcome did this civic sacrifice end up producing? Not just any sports pageant, but a bad sports pageant. Newspapers openly mocked the city’s public transportation deficiencies. The Games were criticized for being too corny and commercialized…wait for itby the damn IOC itself. There were still large swaths of unhoused people sleeping outside of venues. And then, an extremist planted a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park, killing two and injuring more than 100 others. Known as the “Glitch Games,” it seems that not a single soul was happy with the event, save for the competitors that won medals.

That was the last time that the Olympics were hosted on U.S. soil. The Red Dogs have been disbanded, and Atlanta now has a stranglehold on commercial hip-hop, if not all of American popular culture. The makeup of Atlanta has changed. Yet the threat of the Olympics gleefully persists, a tradition enjoyed by the likes of Henry Kissinger. The Summer Games are still scheduled to return to America with the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Frankly, it’s insulting, to the estimated 25,000 people displaced by the Atlanta Olympics, to Kathryn Johnston, to anyone that was on the other side of the door when the Red Dogs were barking.

It’s ludicrous to consider Los Angeles hosting the Olympics as it battles a human rights crisis with 60,000 unhoused people, while another 600,000 spend 90 percent of their income on rent. The entire state is on fire, and Los Angeles only won out as Olympic host after citizen referendums axed bids in Boston and Rome. The Games were also already here in L.A., back in 1984, and they were run by Ronald Reagan sycophants and a police force that would go on to assault Rodney King. If this really were a Clint Eastwood thriller, it would be fair to start hollering at the screen, enraged by the stupidity and brazenness of a main character falling for the same trick again and again.

If a celluloid reappraisal of what happened at the 1996 Olympics is worth a damn thing, it’s this: the Olympics were terrible, unforgiving and violent to their host city and its people. The same goes for subsequent 21st-century hosts like London, Rio de Janeiro and Beijing. The grift will continue, unless it is abolished. We’re running out of time in this movie. Aren’t we tired of letting the killer inside? Aren’t we done falling for that same trick?