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Olympic Bombing Stuns World | MIKE DOWNEY

All U.S. on Atlanta's Side Now

July 28, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — This is why the flame they use is eternal. No one can blow it out, even with a bomb.

Atlanta will carry on, which is all it can do. To do otherwise is to let madmen win. Victory belongs to the Olympians, not to the outsiders, so therefore the city and its people must be strong. Their task now is to be, well, Atlantean.

I feel their pain.

I hear Andrew Young, once their mayor and diplomat, saying, "There is no resurrection without crucifixion." He makes me long to help Atlanta overcome.

I hear Bill Clinton, a man of the South, saying of the culprits, "We will track them down. We will see that they are punished." He makes me want to help Atlanta catch whoever did this.

I hear Lenny Wilkens, coach of Atlanta's professional basketball team, coach also of what we call our "Dream Team," standing firm that the players must play on, because "to not play would be the entirely wrong response to an act of cowardice." He makes me want to do what people in my profession do not do, stand up and cheer.

You will have to forgive me today if I am feeling a little patriotic, because, damn it, somebody is throwing bombs at my America.

Somebody is planting one at the World Trade Center, and somebody is building one inside a shack in Montana, and somebody is killing children with one in Oklahoma City, and somebody apparently is slaughtering people by the hundreds on an airplane near New York City, and I want these people to be made to suffer.

I want them to stare these 15,000 athletes, officials and coaches right in the eye and explain what compulsion drove them to murder and maim the innocent.

I want them to see the way Atlantans are acting today--patiently, pleasantly, self-reliantly, banding together and linking arms. Like the Olympic rings.

These people had problems--mounting, embarrassing problems--that were exposed to the whole world. They were trying to fix them. They couldn't get the athletes to the Games on time . . . but they were trying. They couldn't get the results of the Games to the rest of the world quickly enough . . . but they were trying.

A week into the Olympics, they had braced against a storm of criticism that hit here harder than Hurricane Bertha.

They persevered.

They did what the athletes themselves did . . . tried harder.

Billy Payne brought this circus of the stars to Atlanta, personally took charge as ringmaster, dedicated himself to making this the best Olympics ever, then responded to a week's worth of travails and tribulations by telling visitors that Atlanta is a can-do kind of city that will make the second week one to remember.

The athletes, OK, so they had to commandeer vans and buses, right off the street. They kept coming. Little ones like Kerri Strug. Large ones like Shaquille O'Neal. They did what they came to do. Younger ones like Amanda Beard. Older ones like Angel Martino. They let nothing get in their way, or take them out of their way. Foreign ones like Michelle Smith. Home-grown ones like Lisa Leslie.

Jingoism isn't my thing, but the Olympics bring it out in me.

That's why I hated all that confusion, when the Games began. Atlanta was letting everyone down. They had made promises and were unable to deliver. I was hot. I came 2,500 miles to the Olympics, but they couldn't get me the last six blocks.

*

And it wasn't just me. I have never, ever seen the International Olympic Committee come down on a town the way the IOC flattened Atlanta. Nobody has marched through here that way since Sherman. A writer from Atlanta nagged the media to quit whining, but it was the athletes who were steamed, the officials who were steamed, and I don't mean by the heat.

Then the bomb dropped.

Somehow, that changed everything for me. I became Atlanta's biggest fan. I'll do everything I can for this city now, short of rooting for the Braves.

I walked the streets Saturday morning, watching a city become a community.

On one corner, there stood Dr. David Loya, a medical volunteer who works--ironically--on staff in Los Angeles at the emergency room of the Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center. He was wearing a multicolored shirt, autographed by young U.S. Olympians such as swimmers Beard and Tom Dolan. The shirt was smeared with blood.

Sandy Rolletta of Columbus, Ga., is gasping for breath alongside her friend, Joe Wilson. "We were there," she says. "Not a half a block away. Right there." Joe nods. "An explosion--bang!--then bodies lying on the ground," he says.

One body is rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital. Confirmed dead, says Dr. Mark Waterman, born and raised here and angry, on Atlanta's behalf. "We feel a sense of outrage. We just don't know what is going to happen next."

Helicopters. Firetrucks. Humvees occupied by soldiers. I am not at the Summer Olympics. I am in a war zone.

A woman identifying herself as Kristina Solberg from Blacksburg, Va., takes me by the elbow and tells me, "I was there . . . I thought it was a cannon going off or some fireworks. I thought we must have won a gold medal."

A few blocks away, there was Janet Evans, a four-time gold medalist originally from Placentia, now of Pasadena, still recovering from the shock of it all. She was in Centennial Olympic Park at the blast . . . having a blast, listening to a concert, doing an interview on German TV. Next thing she knew, Evans was holding hands with strangers, giving each other comfort.

Atlanta once was burned.

Now it has been bombed.

"Violence," I hear Andrew Young saying, as Martin Luther King once had, "is the language of the unheard."

I heard.

And here is my response:

Whatever you need, Atlanta, just name it. You're still here. We're still here. Except now, all of us are with you.

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