1. Archive

THE GAMES BEGIN // Biggest race at Games is for profit

Published Jul. 6, 2006

The Big Hustle is in full swing at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. got his start.

Olympic T-shirts and caps are for sale in the gift shop.

A banner over the church entrance advertises gospel dinner concerts throughout the Olympics. The price: 50 bucks a head.

And in the church parking lot Friday, a Kentucky Fried Chicken Mobile Unit was setting up shop for the duration of the games. KFC manager Fred Hamberg said the mobile unit should gross $8,000 a day, from which Ebenezer Baptist will receive a most generous rent.

"They'll come out very good," Hamberg said. "And I mean very good."

Not even this historic landmark of America's civil rights movement is immune from the commercial reach of the Olympic Games. To the contrary, it is civil rights and fried chicken for sale side by side.

The athletic competitions begin today, but the race for profits is already well under way. Everywhere in this city, there is a tingling buzz of delight. You know this buzz. Think of Gordon Gekko, the "Greed is good" guy played by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street. Atlanta has that Gekko buzz, that zip of energy that radiates from those who smell a financial killing.

Jerry Gote has that Gekko buzz. He's the buffed 26-year-old manager of Mick's, a trendy restaurant in Atlanta's Underground. "We're sitting pretty," Gote says, barely able to contain the wattage of his toothy smile. "We did $20,000 in sales last night, and we're just getting started."

Reservations? "Hah," Gote laughs at the question. "Phillip Morris rented out our top floor for the entire Games. Get the picture?"

Corporations, including some that have laid off thousands of employees, seem hellbent on spending vast sums of money entertaining clients and promoting themselves.

Forget about Olympic gold. The official color of Atlanta is Coca-Cola red. As corporate headquarters for Coca-Cola, this has always been true of Atlanta. But never like this. At virtually every corner security people sit under the shade of Coca-Cola umbrellas stuck in Coca-Cola picnic tables, under which are Coca-Cola coolers full of Coca-Cola drinks. Teenagers hike the streets with space-age backpacks shaped like giant Coke bottles that dispense 20-ounce bottles of Coke for $2.

Amber Barrett, 16, is one of Team Coke's foot soldiers. Blond and freckled, she sits in a Coca-Cola kiosk at Woodruff Park. The kiosks all look the same: Imagine a deluxe port-a-potty with a view. They aren't air conditioned, but Barrett isn't complaining. She's making $65 a day _ about $1,000 for the games. That kind of money goes far in her hometown of Gadsden, Ala. ("We got the largest flagpole in the United States.") As she talks about that $1,000, her eyes take on that Gekko glint.

"I love it," she says. "I love it."

It has been said that Coca-Cola is sensitive about appearing too dominant during the Games. But signs of corporate discretion are scarce. Instead the company is charging full ahead to capitalize on its reported $300-million investment in the Olympics.

"The investment that we're making is without question substantial," company spokesman Robert Baskin said Friday. "But webelieve that the ideals embodied by the Games are a good fit for our brand."

Coke's U.S. case sales were up 7{ percent during the first half of 1996, Baskin said, more than double the industry average.

"Right now it looks pretty good."

A pitch on every corner

The city has a frantic feel to it. People are constantly thrusting fliers at you advertising this and that. On a narrow side street, 18-year-old Sary Phai literally grabs at folks passing her booth of Bovanti cosmetics.

"Come here, come here," she says, armed with two tubes of lipstick, Golden Sunset and Barely There. They are the hottest new colors, perfect for the wife, she assures a flustered Asian man. She loses the sale when the man points out that she's wearing neither color.

The most pleasant refuge from this rampant consumerism is, oddly enough, at the center of the most commercialized turf in Atlanta. In the heart of Centennial Olympic Park, in a sunny plaza, jets of water burst at computerized intervals from a fountain of Olympic rings. All day, hundreds of children frolic in the fountain. Budworld and the Swatch Pavilion and the AT&T Global Olympic Village loom in the distance. But near the fountain, nothing is for sale. There are no corporate logos, just families from all over the world, mingling and smiling and taking pictures like maniacs.

At a rapid-transit train station a mile away, David Feggins, a baker and father of three, spreads five shoe boxes on the sidewalk. "The finest ladies shoes in town," he purrs to passing strollers. "Good as Olympic Gold." He's managed to sell three pair in four hours. "It never hurt to try and make a few bucks. Ain't that what Coke (is) doing?"

Further down Peachtree Street, Bishop Lewis M. Craig is trying to make a different sort of sale. He's selling God to the Olympic masses. At age 82, Craig has been preaching since 1945. The frayed collar of his white dress shirt is drenched with sweat. A white carnation sags from the lapel of his threadbare black suit. But his voice is strong.

"God loves ya," Craig shouts, over and over. From the looks of indifference of passing customers, he doesn't appear to be making many sales.

Business is also slow at a booth along Auburn Avenue, where fortune teller Gina Crystal (she swears that's her real name) sits at a small table. Before her on the table is a stopwatch, Tarot cards and a large purple amethyst. The stopwatch is to keep track of her sessions: $10 for three minutes.

With luminous dark eyes and long black hair streaked with grey, Crystal has been reading cards for 22 years, "but this is my first Olympic games," she says.

"Do you have a question?" she asks.

Yes, the reporter says: Are the Olympics going to be a commercial success?

"I have to take the money from you first before I can answer that," Crystal replies with a smile. The $10 bill disappears into a satin purse.

She lays six cards out on the table.

The first couple of cards don't look good, but the last few seem to hold better news. Crystal is particularly pleased by the Ace of Pentacles.

"It looks like it will be profitable," she pronounces.

Crystal, for one, seems relieved by the news.