Perhaps you know someone like this. Perhaps you know a person who remains perfectly calm no matter how harsh the deadline, how manic the boss, how deafening the noise, how near the chaos. A person whose expression never flickers, no matter what's pounding in his head or running though his gut or jerking on his arm.
I know a building like this.
Suppose you laid down a concrete slab, erected some walls and a roof over it and then invited in the biggest judo tournament in the world, and all the seats and mats and showers and locker rooms that went with it. And then you added the biggest fencing tournament in the world, and the biggest Greco-Roman wrestling tournament and the biggest weightlifting tournament. And then you threw in the biggest table tennis tournament, the biggest freestyle wrestling tournament, the biggest team handball tournament and one of the five disciplines of the modern pentathlon—eight Olympic events and some leftover change, more than have ever been held beneath a single roof. And then, because you could, suppose you hauled in and installed the most extensive telecommunications complex in history, requiring 1.5 million feet of cable and 550,000 square feet of space. And then you invited in roughly 100,000 people a day—the population of, for instance, Albany, N.Y. And then, just for the sheer hell of it, you ran 70 trains a day through the building's entrails. And ringed it all, in the wake of the Centennial Park bomb explosion last Saturday morning, with the tightest Olympic security ever, including a phalanx of metal detectors and two searches—one outside, one inside—of every bag or backpack.
And the building shrugged. And the building yawned. I met a building like this.
Suppose you are one of the quarter million people a day who find themselves standing on Atlanta's International Plaza, amid the Olympic "cluster" that includes the Georgia Dome and the Omni. You're staring at the big brother of those two arenas, asking your eyes to take in a vastness that they simply cannot. This building is more than a third of a mile long—so long that its engineers had to account for the curvature of the earth. It's a fifth of a mile wide. It's 11 stories tall. It's the $207 million Georgia World Congress Center, the hub of the 1996 Summer Games.
Architecturally, nothing about it grabs you by the lapels and drags you inside. It's just a huge box of concrete, steel and glass built on a railroad gulch and an old city dump. "A big old bowling shoe, from outside," Dan Graveline, the executive director of the GWCC Authority, has fondly called it. But you're clutching your Olympic ticket, and you're being swept along by a river of humanity, not to mention a series of volunteers on raised chairs, like lifeguards, who bark through loudspeakers, "Weightlifting, judo, table tennis, fencing, wrestling—right this way!" So into the concrete box you go. You take a few hundred steps and then a few hundred more. And then you go down one long bank of escalators, and then another and another. And then you stop and blink up at one of the building's 20,000 light fixtures, and you scratch your head, and you realize that there's still no end in sight, and you're just a tiny insect in the scheme of the universe, and the universe is just one building.
You're looking down a concourse that is more than twice as long as Atlanta's tallest skyscraper is high. Gazing at just a fraction of the GWCC's 2.5 million square feet. At the inside of a building whose eight exhibition halls, which take up less than 40% of its total space, could contain five Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. At the edifice whose proportions convinced the International Olympic Committee that Billy Payne, the man who set out to bring the Games to Atlanta, wasn't the crock of delusions he may at first have appeared to be. And you ask a volunteer security guard—say, 38-year-old Elbert Green of Oklahoma City—where in hell you are, and he says, you tell me and then I'll tell you. "Have I been lost here?" says Green. "I be lost right now. Every time I have to go to the bathroom, I end up asking the fans where to go. This building swallows you up. Wish I had some popcorn to leave a trail so I could find my way back."
"What I do when I hire a new man," says Alan Davis, chief of the building's police force, "is hand him a canteen of water and say, 'I'll see you in 40 days and nights.' Each year after the Boy Scout convention, I have this fear of finding a Scout camped out somewhere in the building two weeks later, earning his badge for survival."
Odd, isn't it? People enter this building damp from the humidity, dumbstruck by the barrage of carny vendors, crushed from the overburdened transportation systems, unsettled by the security threat, but once they're inside, you can almost hear their collective sigh. It's the net effect of the building's towering ceilings and windows, the three-story waterfall, the trees and gardens, the 72[degree] temperature, the wall-to-wall carpeting containing 70,000 miles of yarn, enough to circle the globe nearly three times. Hell, it feels like you're in history's biggest hotel atrium, not its busiest Olympic site. Why go back outside into the madness when you can catch nearly one fifth of the entire Olympics here? Why worry about running the Olympic marathon in a city this hot—why not run the Olympic marathon in here?
If your pockets are deep enough and your legs strong enough, you can race down the building's west-side concourse, poke your head into each hall and see, within the span of a few minutes, 16 Ping-Pongers ponging, 14 handballers handballing, 12 fencers fencing, four judokas judoing and one weightlifter lifting nearly a half-ton of iron above his head. Then you can race past the Southeast's largest ballroom, 76 meetings rooms, 10 restaurants, who-can-count-how-many kiosks, a gift shop, a business center, a FedEx office, a Delta Airlines office, a U.S. Postal Service center, an international telephone center and a Laundromat, going by way of the tunnel that burrows under the Norfolk Southern railway line . . . which places us in the building's east side, center for the 11,000 broadcast-media personnel from 164 organizations sending 3,000 hours of Olympics to 3.5 billion viewers. The TV broadcasting center alone, built on the floor of three joined exhibition halls strictly for the duration of the Games, is so large that street names had to be assigned in its labyrinth of passageways: Pierre de Coubertin Way, Lillehammer Lane and Sydney Street are just a few. But this being America, even 2.5 million square feet don't cut it, so plans are in the works to add another half-million square feet of exhibition space within the next five years.
Perhaps that sprint through the building is not such a good idea. Better to sit back and watch tens of thousands of people find their way in and out of the GWCC's 75 bathrooms and 2,000 doors, up and down its 50 escalators and 25 elevators. Funny how this 20-year-old building, the nerve center of this entire unnerved Olympics, is its most composed place.
But why should this building pay any heed to the Polish wrestling lunatics who were stomping down its concourses last week, their faces painted red and white? Or to the nationalist frenzy of the Turkish and Greek contingents whipping on their boys in the weightlifting hall? Or to the Egyptians slashing the air with their flags and dancing madly to Burning Down the House in the team handball venue, or to the South Korean judo fans beating together small yellow bats called bang mangi as they rooted middleweight Cho Min-sun to her gold medal, or to the 286-pound Greco-Roman wrestler, Aleksandr Karelin of Russia, hoisting another opponent over his head and heaving him to the floor en route to his third straight Olympic gold medal, or to the police yanking apart Cuban fencer Elvis Gregory and his victorious French opponent, Philippe Omnes, when the two began throwing punches after Gregory refused to shake hands, or to the bald, 52-year-old American wrestling coach, Bob Anderson, uttering his wedding vows before a minister just outside the wrestling venue, or to the fans lying shoeless on the carpet, legs akimbo, sound asleep, or to the presidents, kings and princes striding past them to cheer for their homeboys, or to the teenagers using all that space to play catch, or to the journalists, coaches and athletes catching a smoke on the back loading dock, or to all the screams of joy and sobs of despair ringing through the building's innards, the sounds of hundreds of hopes and dreams being snuffed and sated? Why, when this is a building that routinely swallows more people a day during its mega-trade shows, a building that has—in a single gulp—simultaneously taken in five conventions attended by a total of 118,000 people, that has had a tornado unleashed inside its belly by Nike as part of a trade show, and indoor fireworks set off? Do you actually think that the Olympics is going to faze a building that has survived 75,000 Amway distributors, 60,000 hair stylists, 50,000 Southern Baptists and 22,000 Boy Scouts, not to mention a Turkish whirling-dervish troupe, the Cat Fanciers Association and the funeral directors' convention, with all the latest in caskets and headstones? What Olympic gold or silver can match the booty—or the beauty—that is rumored to be behind the dark windows of the limousines that purr up to the loading docks of the GWCC at night, helping the Japanese manufacturers of million-dollar textile machinery to woo their clients?
Speaking of which, let's just stand behind the palm tree over here and watch the Japanese fans. They're the ones spinning circles with their video cameras, wishing they had an island this big, too proud to admit they're lost. It might take a good quarter hour before some traffic controller locates them on the radar and directs them toward the sport they've come to see. The locals have no such reticence. "Where's the sword fighting?" some of them call out to the volunteers who are busy waving pictograms—insignia for the various sports—and trying to keep the line that is forming for fencing from getting tangled in the ones forming for handball and judo.
All nationalities are bewildered by the outer chamber they must enter before they are allowed inside the table tennis venue. You walk into a small room and wait until a few dozen others have joined you, and then the doors behind you are shut. You're waiting to hear the hiss of gas from a wall duct when a volunteer explains that this is an air lock, designed to prevent air currents from disturbing the flight of the little orange balls whizzing across the eight purple tables. Then he gives his relieved listeners the O.K. to proceed through the next set of doors and go inside.
You wonder what it takes to ride this eight-event beast, and you walk inside the office of Jim Oshust, the 62-year-old silver-haired jockey holding the reins, and the first thing you see is a piece of paper with a giant no! taped to the front of his desk, and a blue rubber ball that he clutches and fondles while reports from the field crackle over his walkie-talkie. And then he sits back and starts shooting one-liners at you, smiling and chatting about his monumental task, and you realize that it requires a man like him, a man a lot like this building: big-shouldered and tranquil, innately accommodating. "If Moses had as many meetings as we've had," Oshust says, "his people would still be in a suburb of Cairo. Four more memos and the forests of Georgia are gone. What we did, basically, was build five small Madison Square Gardens inside a box, seating and all. Everything inside's temporary. A few days after the Games, it'll all be torn down, gone. Fun? About as much fun as a vasectomy with a Weed Eater."
He spent July 22—his 35th wedding anniversary—working a 19 1/2-hour shift, and now he's making sure one of his crews is ready to convert Hall G from Greco-Roman wrestling to team handball. "I have to believe all this can be done," says Oshust, the former operations director at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, "because the minute I don't, it's going to permeate all the people working here. Most of them are volunteers. When they see all these people coming at them, there's a tendency to be overwhelmed psychologically and emotionally. If I have a big problem here, there are going to be people screaming like a long-tailed dog in a room full of rockers. This building helps a lot, though. It's like old money: elegant, quiet, effective."
"I keep hearing on the radio about all the people complaining about all the problems at these Olympics," says weary-eyed Andy Griffin, Oshust's assistant venue logistics manager, "but there's yet to be a single horror story in the World Congress Center."
Over at the three-story waterfall, kids are pausing as they exit the building, peering over the railing to make wishes and heave coins to the faraway bottom. Everyone's smiling. Everyone has been lost. Everyone has been found. Another good day inside the Buddha that swallowed a beehive.