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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | IMPRESSIONS | BILL PLASCHKE

Payne Breaks the Chain of Olympic Spirit

August 05, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — An interruption.

Two young women left without a mother, a man left without a wife, more than 100 people left with memories that cut like shrapnel.

An interruption.

That is what Billy Payne called the Centennial Olympic Park bombing Sunday night.

In his only chance to use a worldwide TV audience to honor the memory of those innocents who came to the Olympics and left as victims, he instead treated that memory like lint.

"Called to action when our celebration was interrupted, the people have themselves chosen to reclaim that which is theirs--their city, and their beloved Olympic movement," Payne said.

An interruption. From the president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

In a 2-minute 25-second speech before about 80,000 at Centennial Olympic Stadium, that was his only reference to the explosion of a week ago.

Talk about Olympic closing ceremonies that gave somebody chills.

There was no acknowledgment of the loss, of the pain, of what happens when somebody has to leave a party on a stretcher.

He didn't talk about that interruption.

Worse, he did not differentiate between the bomber and Alice Hawthorne, the businesswoman from Albany, Ga., who was torn apart by the bomb.

An interruption. Both of them.

Moments later, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, stepped to the midfield podium.

What happened next, he couldn't have done any better if he sprayed Payne with a hose.

"We have not forgotten the tragic explosion of last week, nor have we forgotten the victims, their families and their friends," Samaranch said.

Then, he had the conscience to officially recognize the 1972 Munich tragedy, a first by the IOC since the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

The 30 seconds of silence represented the loudest noise of a deafening two weeks.

Samaranch thanked America and walked away with one of the Games' moments of quiet dignity.

But these were not his Olympics. They were Payne's. And thank goodness he'll never get his hands on them again.

Judging from the lukewarm applause given his comments--even when he paused for it--many Atlantans may now realize where to point when outsiders talk about their city with a shudder.

The competition was splendid, dramatic, memorable. The camaraderie among the fans and athletes was spontaneous and heartwarming. And doesn't Payne know it. He has spent two weeks using those truths as weapons in what he saw as his battle with the media. What he didn't realize was, it's that way at every Olympics.

There will always be a Kerri Strug. There will always be champions who invite their challengers to join them on the highest part of the medal stand.

There will always be tears and millions of fans willing to share them with their heroes.

Why do you think NBC has sunk more than a billion dollars in future telecasts? The actual games at the Games are the surest bet on the planet.

But host cities are judged not on these extraordinary events, but on the class, grace and sensitivity displayed presenting these events to the world.

Payne showed none of the above Sunday night, leading to the inescapable conclusions that so many proud Americans have tried to avoid.

That the internal problems that made these Games a logistic disaster and over-commercialized embarrassment for fans and athletes were not a fluke.

That the arrogance with which ACOG dealt with these problems was not a fluke.

That, bottom line, Atlanta had blown it. Big time.

Payne had his chance.

This two-week exercise in humanity could have had closure if only he acted like a human being. Would have taken him all of five minutes.

An interruption, Billy Payne?

An interruption is a spring shower, a smile from across the room, a baby's fall after his first steps.

An interruption is something that should happen to your legal career after spending the last six years impersonating a visionary.

An interruption is not a bomb.

Juan Antonio Samaranch did have one more important thing to say about Atlanta on Sunday.

"Well done," he said.

As in, stick a fork in Billy Payne and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

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