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Stained Games

A terrifying blast in Atlanta's Centennial Park shattered lives and shook the Olympic spirit

by S.L. Price

Nothing moves. The air is still, 10,946 voices stop, the mournful seconds tick off. Everything about this moment of silence calls for an absolute freeze. But Mary Ellen Clark can't help herself. She begins to twitch: Her dive is coming. Her moment. She stands, on a platform 10 meters high, the first and the oldest American to dive on this Saturday morning, a classic Olympic tale in the making. Yet the crowd at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center has forgotten her for now; it stands, thinking of Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park and the pipe bomb that roared and sliced through the 1996 Summer Games 10 hours before. It stands, remembering the two dead and the 111 injured, the panicked revelers who scattered in a spray of nails and screws. It stands, thinking of the many days left in these 1996 Olympics and of all the packed sidewalks and subway cars.

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The morning after the explosion, blood covered some of the park's commemorative bricks, which are inscribed with the names of Olympic sponsors.

photograph by
Lynn Johnson


Clark bows her head in respect, she squares her feet ... but she can't help herself. Her triceps burn. Her dive is coming. She picks up a towel and wipes down her shoulders. She shakes her muscles, thinking only, Forward 1 1/2 somersault. The silence ends. Clark steps, she sails out over the water. The bomb hasn't touched her. She cares, but not too much. It is a very good dive. "We have only two days to compete, so we need to be focused," Clark will say later. "We need to trust and let go. Let the security people do their thing. We're athletes."

Athletes still. That is the merciful thing. Only hours after the worst event to scar the Olympic movement since the killing of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Games in Munich, the 10,750 '96 Olympians from 197 countries woke up as neither victims nor survivors. On the morning after one alert security official discovered a suspicious-looking bag wedged at the base of a sound-and-light tower at about 1 a.m. and set in motion an evacuation that surely saved lives, games were played. On Saturday, Monica Seles beat Gabriela Sabatini in tennis, Clark won a bronze medal in the platform, Donovan Bailey screamed out his triumph in the 100 meters. Volleyball happened. Boxing. Baseball. "We've come to jump in the Olympic Games, and nothing's going to put us off that," said British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, who claimed silver that night. "Once we were on the track, we were thinking about one thing: trying to compete to the best of our ability."

Billy Payne, chief of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), had promised that "the safest place on this wonderful planet will be Atlanta, Georgia, during the time of our Games." For ACOG organizers and for those who believe the essence of the Olympics rises solely from athletic competition, the continued single-mindedness of the athletes is comforting. It makes it easy to think that the Atlanta Games might yet transcend the dozens of bomb threats since the Centennial Park blast, the daily evacuations of malls and hotels, and find a signature moment in some wonderful performance. But the fact is, the bombing irrevocably changed the tenor of the 1996 Olympics.

Atlanta, a booster's paradise that sought through these Games to confirm its status as a major city, now suffers the civic bruising feared by Montreal, Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona. Cruelly, Atlanta will be known for years as the city that bragged about the largest peacetime security operation in U.S. history—but couldn't protect the Olympics. "The whole spirit of the Games is lost," says Australian freestyle swimmer Daniel Kowalski, who won three medals. "These Olympics will now be remembered for the deaths and bomb threats and not the athletic feats."


After the park had been evacuated, emergency vehicles converged near the sound-and-light tower, where explosives were planted.

photograph by
John Iacono


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"My heart goes out to the organizing committee," says LeRoy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, "because it does put a cloud over the Games."

It is a cloud that ACOG, through severe errors of judgment, did little to deter. Payne, who saw Centennial Park as his legacy to Atlanta, one that would long outlive the Games, pushed hard for the 21-acre enclave to be a low-security village square where those with and without tickets could mix and mill and taste the '96 Games, unhindered by the metal detectors and bag searches required at every other Olympic site. The park, located in the center of Atlanta's downtown Olympic complex and completed just days before the Games began, was to be nothing less than ground zero for the Olympic spirit, and organizers felt the spirit couldn't stand the same protection that Olympic athletes and millions of airline customers experience every day.

Yet Centennial Park ultimately was, by design, more a marketplace than a shrine to Olympic sportsmanship. Though Payne's hope for Centennial Park was modeled on the warm, architecturally stunning plazas he saw in Barcelona, the park was, as much as anything, a place to seize the main chance. Corporate sponsors made Atlanta's gathering place a carnival midway. It was fun, it was loud—and, most important for a corporation like AT&T, which poured $30 million into its Global Olympic Village, it was crowded.

"Unfortunately some people within [ACOG] still believe that when you have visible security, it's not always a good thing," says Brent Brown, president of Chesley, Brown Consultants, an Atlanta security firm. "They believe it leaves a bad perception. And that's not good for the businesses that spent so much to be down there and wanted as many people there as possible."

Worse, the park was surrounded by such highly secured venues as the Georgia World Congress Center, the Omni, the Georgia Dome, the Main Press Center and the hotel that housed the Dream Team and other prized athletes. Centennial Park was, in effect, the soft underbelly of an otherwise impregnable armor. Whoever planted the Atlanta bomb "didn't come in the [Athletes'] Village—they couldn't," says Micki King, a former gold-medal-winning diver who was in the Munich Village in 1972 and was managing the U.S. diving team in Atlanta last week. "Security in the Village was a deterrent. They picked the one vulnerable spot."

This isn't just hindsight. Before the Games, security experts were privately critical of ACOG's lack of, as one specialist put it, "thorough planning." Jeff Beatty, a former officer in Delta Force, the elite Army antiterrorist unit, trained the FBI in hostage negotiations for the 1984 Los Angeles Games and worked with several Atlanta corporate sponsors and advised ACOG on security for its own headquarters. Beatty says that a week before the Games, "I did notice that it was wide open for terrorism. In the venues they chose security as the most important thing; at Centennial Park they chose access. Those two things are diametrically opposed. Open access means poor security." That such access was allowed is questionable at best, though Payne denies he was warned that the park was a security risk.

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The Victims: Medics rushed many of the 113 casualties to local hospitals.

photograph by
Julian Gonzalez/Black Star


Court records reveal that the last time a Summer Games was held in the U.S., in L.A. in 1984, a right-wing "Aryan" paramilitary group called the Order made elaborate plans to bomb several Olympic sites. When members of the group were arrested that year, several like-minded militias vowed to continue what they saw as the Order's "unfinished business," though no incidents related to that threat were reported. Last April federal agents near Macon, Ga., arrested two members of the Georgia Republic Militia with bomb-making materials in their possession. It was widely reported at the time that the group was planning a "war" on the '96 Olympics, though authorities denied it.

"I think I prepared myself more because of the threats that had been coming in," says Atlanta native Gwen Torrence, a bronze medalist in last Saturday's 100-meter dash. "I just asked God to watch over me and my family." And Torrence didn't even know that—according to Brown, the security consultant—an unarmed pipe bomb had been found in Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital 10 days before the Games began.

"It sent everyone's worries soaring," Brown says. "It ended up not being a [live] bomb, but it was placed there by someone to scare everyone."

And that, in a flash, has become the legacy of these Games: fear. Surely that is what the presumed murderer intended last Saturday when he dialed 911 and left this brief message: "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes." After the blast, as many as 10 U.S. athletes living outside the Athletes' Village requested—and received—permission to move into the compound. New Zealand boxer Garth Da Silva, who was showered by glass from a broken window at the AT&T Village when the bomb went off, says, "I can't relax enough. There is a wariness." More telling, though, was the reaction of the public, which revealed a new skittishness about unclaimed bags, packs, even thermoses. In one sense Atlanta is the reverse of Munich, where it was the Athletes' Village that was vulnerable. At the '96 Games, as Walker says, "the safest place you can be now is in the Village or at a venue."

Terrorists understand that. Much as hijackings transformed air travel, what happened in Atlanta on the morning of July 27 seems destined to transform the nature of large public gatherings in the U.S. Already Atlanta organizers have been forced to compromise: Centennial Park was scheduled to reopen on Tuesday, but with doubled security, increased surveillance, and bag searches. Organizers for Sydney 2000 are discussing the idea of enclosing the entire Summer Games site within a fence, open to no cars, no unsearched crowds. But even that wouldn't be enough. "People can tie bombs to themselves and walk into a place and blow themselves up," Walker says. "I don't care what Sydney does. You can't secure a whole city."

Nor, once the fear is unleashed, can people ever again feel secure. That was made clear early Sunday morning, 23 hours after the bomb blew in Centennial Park. Just a few blocks away the entire population of a Days Inn was awakened and evacuated. Another bomb threat. People clustered on the corner opposite the hotel, waiting. Cop radios squawked, lights flashed. A couple from Belgium, attending their first Olympics, tried to make the best of it. "The first day here, it was like a big family—everybody mixed together," said Marc Verstraeten. "But since yesterday we don't find the Olympic spirit anymore. It's gone. It's a real pity."

Verstraeten is an architect. "Hospitals and sports stadiums are my specialty," he said, and then he realized how that sounds now. He held up his hands and grinned in dismay, the right man in the right town at the right time. After a while the police began waving the crowd inside, and the hotel guests shuffled back—all the vacationers and journalists, all the fans and friends who had come to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games.

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