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Stained Games
S.L. Price
August 05, 1996
A terrifying blast in Atlanta's Centennial Park shattered lives and shook the Olympic spirit
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August 05, 1996

Stained Games

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

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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.

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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