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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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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.

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 1½ 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."

"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."

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