Ali, Johnson eased pain of Atlanta bombing
Posted: Wednesday June 30, 2004 9:22PM; Updated: Thursday July 29, 2004 2:36AM
LONDON (Reuters) -- The explosion's thunderclap shook windows throughout downtown Atlanta after midnight.
In the dark, near the stage in Centennial Park, Alice Hawthorne lay dying. She had driven to Atlanta to sample the Olympic atmosphere with her 14-year-old daughter and was in the wrong place when the pipe bomb exploded.
Near dawn officials announced that the 1996 Games, already marred by poor organisation, would continue and they struggled to their close eight days later.
Sandwiched between Olympics in Barcelona and Sydney, Atlanta, a modern American city with few television "beauty shots," was always going to find it hard to match up.
Centennial Park was symptomatic of a problem of perception between local people and overseas visitors.
Atlanta residents remembered what had been there before -- a rundown inner city area of abandoned buildings. It was replaced by a pleasant park, the entertainment fulcrum for Games events.
To many, however, the park was a tacky venue packed with inappropriate T-shirt and food stalls that seemed to show the city's primary goal was to make a quick buck.
The park was crowded with concert-goers when the powerful bomb exploded. More than 100 people were injured and a Turkish cameraman died after suffering a heart attack as he rushed to cover the incident.
The prime suspect eluded police for five years before being caught. He is still awaiting trial on charges of planting the bomb and a series of other explosive devices.
The last time the Games had been held in the United States, in 1984, Los Angeles had put on a Hollywood show with the young Carl Lewis at centre stage. Lewis won one of his four gold medals, in the long jump, with his first attempt.
In Atlanta the American was 35 and, like an old vaudeville trouper, still knew how to turn it on. He only just qualified for the Games at the U.S. trials and made the final in Atlanta with his last leap in qualifying.
No-one knew better than Lewis how to overcome the nerves of the big occasion and he duly claimed his fourth successive long jump gold and his ninth Olympic title.
Even Lewis, however, was upstaged by Michael Johnson with one of the greatest individual performances in Olympic history.
Italy's Pietro Mennea had held the world 200 metres record for 17 years until Johnson took it off him by 0.06 seconds just weeks before the Games at the U.S. trials.
In the Olympic final Johnson destroyed the rest of the field at the top of the bend and crossed the line in 19.32 seconds -- an astonishing 0.34 inside the previous record.
His 200-400 title double was equalled by France's Marie-Jo Perec in the women's events.
Mystery and rampant rumour surrounded Michelle Smith's sudden rise to prominence in the pool.
Ireland had never won a women's Olympic medal before and Smith won three golds and a bronze. Allegations about her performances were primed by the fact her husband, Dutch discus thrower Erik de Bruin, had been banned for a positive dope test.
American president Bill Clinton urged the doubters to give Smith a chance and she received a heroine's welcome on her return to Ireland.
However, in 1998 she was banned from swimming for four years after being found guilty of tampering with a urine sample.
In the gymnastics hall, the American public were desperate for a first Olympic gold in the women's team event and it was provided in classic Hollywood style when the injured Kerri Strug sealed victory with the final jump on the vault despite an ankle injury.
Strug landed on both feet after completing her jump, turned to salute the judges and collapsed in pain.
She was carried away on a stretcher and by the morning was a coast-to-coast star.
Even Strug, however, was put in the shade by arguably the most influential athlete of the 20th century whose electrifying performance at the opening ceremony provided the Games with their most memorable moment.
Muhammad Ali had won a boxing gold in 1960 but had thrown it into a river on his return from the Rome Games after being refused service in a restaurant run by whites.
Atlanta, home city of murdered civil rights leader Martin Luther King, had been rife with rumours that Ali, now suffering from Parkinson's syndrome, would play a part in the Games.
As the ceremony reached its climax, swimmer Janet Evans ran up the steps towards the Olympic cauldron.
Suddenly, a spotlight picked out a figure in a tracksuit waiting for her at the top -- it was Ali. The crowd gasped and burst into applause.
Ali took the flame from Evans and turned towards the taper leading to the cauldron. His hands shaking from effort and disease, he tried to light the flame.
Finally the taper caught, Ali turned to acknowledge the ecstatic crowd and was quickly hustled away by assistants.
In a fitting postscript, the 54-year-old Ali was given a duplicate gold medal to replace the one he had tossed into the Ohio River in disgust 36 years before.
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