BIGGER AND BETTER As '92 Games end, future of Olympics couldn't be brighter


BARCELONA, Spain -- The business of the Olympics is good. Very good.

There is no recession. No unemployment. Even deficits are ignored.

Forget the medal counts. Check the numbers that matter to the Lords of the Rings of the International Olympic Committee.

Television ratings: Up.

Corporate sponsorships: Up.

Cities bidding to host future Games: Up.

As the 1992 Summer Olympics close today with a marathon that slopes up a hill and the extinguishing of a flame, the future of the Games has never appeared brighter.

The biggest Olympics in history, drawing more than 10,000 athletes from 172 countries, have also, in many ways, been the best. The end of the Cold War combined with the warmth and passion of Catalonia's capital city residents produced Games of joy.

But the modern Olympics as envisioned by their founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, are gone. The youth of the world still gather for 16 days of running, swimming and tumbling, but so do chief executives and clients of dozens of multinational corporations.

Sports and commerce have created a money-making machine. And where there is cash, there is change.

Beginning with the 1994 Winter Games of Lillehammer, Norway, the Olympic schedule will be transformed, with Winter and Summer Olympics alternating on a two-year cycle.

And the size and scope of the Olympics will reach new boundaries with the Centennial Games of 1996 in Atlanta.

Picture a binge in a shopping mall, and you have an idea of what the Atlanta Games will be like.

Marketing, licensing and merchandising profits are expected to exceed $600 million. Worldwide television rights fees are expected to go for $1 billion.

More athletes. More sports. More hours of television programming.

Women's softball. In for 1996. Four more women's teams added in volleyball and basketball.

Also on the agenda is men's and women's triathlon while dropping the modern pentathlon. Cycling could even move off ** the track and onto the mountain.

Beach volleyball, anyone? It could happen.

Olympic old-timers

And there will be Olympic old-timers everywhere. Heptathlon gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 30, vows to come back for 1996. So does eight-time gold medalist Carl Lewis, 31, and decathlon bronze medalist Dave Johnson, 29.

"I can't wait for Atlanta," Johnson said. "I want to perform before a home crowd."

Depending on your view, this is all for the good. The biggest, the best, the richest Games.

"The Olympics have gotten better," said Dick Ebersol, president of NBC-TV. "The commitment is to get all the best athletes in the world together, not just rich people. The commercialization has been responsible for a democratization of the Games."

The selling of the Olympics is one of the great comeback stories of business. Once a small, European-dominated event, the Olympics had become something of a Chrysler Corp., so broke it almost couldn't be fixed. When Montreal nearly went bankrupt after being the host for the 1976 Summer Games, and Moscow was stung by a U.S.-led boycott in 1980, the Games appeared to be wobbling toward insolvency.

And then along came the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, all dressed up in red, white and blue. While the crowds were chanting "USA, USA," the organizers, led by Peter Ueberroth, were rewriting the rules of Olympic business. Ueberroth, head of the L.A. organizing committee, boosted television rights fees with hard-nosed bargaining, limited the number of corporate sponsorships to get bigger bucks for fewer bangs and cut costs of construction.

The Games ended with a $235 million surplus, and the Olympics were saved.

TV rights fees spiraled. Corporate sponsors lined up to hand over $25 million each to the IOC.

But some potholes remain. Organizers of the 1992 Winter Games of Albertville, France, absorbed a $58 million loss.

For Barcelona, NBC paid $401 million for both over-the-air rights and its TripleCast cable venture. The network and a cable partner will lose more than $100 million.

Mr. Ebersol predicts American TV rights fees, the lifeblood of the Olympics, will level off for Atlanta.

"It won't be any $500 million or $600 million fee," he said. "If it is, then someone will be a very broken guy."

But the Atlanta Games are expected to be a lucrative aberration, made possible by America's insatiable appetite for athletics and its hospitable corporate environment. Few countries, let alone cities, could support an event that requires 2,000 buses, 50,000 volunteers and 50,000 hotel rooms, all to aid 2 million visitors who will purchase the bulk of 8 million tickets.

"There has to be the recognition that the Atlanta situation is one-timeonly," said Dave Ogrean, the U.S. Olympic Committee's director of broadcasting. "People have to be cognizant that they don't build such a big house that they can't make the mortgage payments later."

While all is in place for Lilliehammer and Atlanta, there is a movement to tailor the event toward the 21st Century. Lillehammer, for instance, is being billed as "The Green Games," the first environmentally correct sporting event ever held.

"The Games must not be allowed to be too big, so that small countries won't be able to organize them," said Gerhard Heiberg, chairman and CEO of the 1994 Lillehammer organizing committee. "There must be a balance between how commercialized we can get. Have we pushed that edge already? It is, after all, a sports event."

The 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, could also turn into a corporate show on ice and snow. But by 2000, the emphasis could shift again.

"I don't think the future of the Olympic movement involves the notion that bigger is better," said U.S. Olympic Committee executive director Harvey Schiller. "With international expansion we have a changing event, but it's not necessarily an ever-expanding universe."

Mr. Schiller said that in 2000, rather than which cities have the best venues, the selection will come down to geographic and political situations.

The leading contenders:

* Berlin, the symbol of the end of the Cold War.

* Manchester, England, a city banking on urban renewal.

* Beijing, a bid by China to end its isolation and reach to the west.

* Sydney, Australia, a sign that Oceania is ready to host its first Olympics in half a century.

But the path to the next century goes through the American south, through Atlanta.

"We're going to have the best Olympic Games ever," said Billy Payne, president of Atlanta's local organizing committee. "We won't wrap ourselves in an American Olympics. These will be Centennial Games, a World Games. But we'll have three languages. French. English. And Southern."

A new 85,000-seat stadium soon will be under construction. The 70,000-seat Georgia Dome, which is almost complete, will be used for basketball and gymnastics. There is a push for Atlanta to spruce up its downtown, improve its mass transit system.

Four years to go. Four years to build. Tickets go on sale in 1995.

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