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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | IMPRESSIONS

COMMENTARY / BILL DWYRE : The Heart Misses a Beat in Atlanta's Aftermath

August 05, 1996|BILL DWYRE

ATLANTA — In retrospect, Seoul got a better deal. Its legacy is Ben Johnson.

It took me more than a week to go back to Centennial Olympic Park. In the days immediately after the bomb, I had only gone so far as to look out the window of the press cafeteria, 30 yards or so across the street from the big sound tower that blew partially apart, leading to the death of two people and the injury of 111 more.

I remember being taken aback at the sight of the same green benches that we all saw in those quick, post-bomb TV shots of wounded people, on them and on the ground near them. Presumably, somebody eventually wiped the blood off.

I didn't blame Atlanta or its Olympic organizers for the bomb. They can't do anything about nut cases or zealots or whatever twisted mind did this for whatever twisted reason. But I guess I did blame Atlanta and the Olympic organizers for what I perceived to be a general insensitivity in the aftermath.

At 5:30 in the morning of July 27, fours hours after the bomb went off, half-a-dozen Olympic and law enforcement types paraded into a packed news conference theater to make their official public pronouncements. Their body language was clear: The media were there to bury them, and they would take the defensive. But that's OK. At 5:30 in the morning, one can forgive imperfect body language.

Attitude was another thing. When the International Olympic Committee member entrusted with this very crucial moment in Olympic history, Director General Francois Carrard, made the statement we were all there to hear, it wasn't so much what he said that was bothersome, but how he said it.

"The Games will go on," he said.

Not: "We're sorry and horrified by what happened, but we need to keep going because we can't let these terrorist creeps win."

Or, even better: "We need a day of reflection and we don't feel making a decision in such a circumstance in four hours is appropriate, so the Games will be suspended for 24 hours while we get a better handle on this."

None of that. Just: "The Games will go on."

There was an arrogance and manner that was unmistakable. It struck me that the IOC probably has a handbook for just such situations and that handbook was written by Avery Brundage in 1972 in Munich.

My translation of Carrard's statement/attitude would be along the lines of:

"Of course, you poor fools, did you think we would stop something so big and important merely because some woman from Albany, Georgia, died?"

Or, worse: "Do you think for one moment that we could tell NBC and Coca-Cola that we're calling this thing off?"

The news conference was perfunctory, devoid of spirit or compassion. The ACOG person, the IOC person, the FBI person and the Atlanta PD person, all intent on one thing--covering their behinds. Had only one of them stood up and said, "I'm sorry, this may not be that professional, but all I can think about are those people getting hurt, so you're going to have to bear with me here."

At 5:30 in the morning, I can forgive lack of proper body language. At no time of the day can I forgive lack of humanity.

Three days later, they reopened the park. They let people in at 8 a.m., but didn't open the stores until after a memorial service was held around 10:30 at the site of the bombings. Even then, while the gesture was nice, it was like just about everything else at these Olympic Games: poorly thought out. While the hymns were being sung and the somber speeches were being made, the lines to buy T-shirts at the Super Store and watches at the Swatch Pavilion got more and more restless.

Soon, Billy Payne, the president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and the man whose vision it was to have this Centennial Olympic Park, was ready, with some final words, to reopen the park. He asked for a moment of silence.

Photographer Vince Compagnone of The Times describes what happened: "I started to raise my camera to shoot pictures of people, bowing their heads. But before I got the camera halfway up, people were already clapping and Payne was saying, " 'Now, let the park reopen.' "

The lines to the stores surged forward. The cash registers began to ring. In Centennial Olympic Park, life was good again.

Bomb? What bomb?

In the press corps here, Payne's final gesture became known as the "nanosecond of silence."

A week later, I took my walk in the park. The crowds were crushing, a barely mobile mass of humanity, going nowhere and doing it slowly. Somewhere up there, whoever invented T-shirts was looking down on the scene, smiling broadly.

On the little hill near the sound stage where Alice Hawthorne had died, people had placed flags and other mementos. There was a picture of Martin Luther King, some handwritten poetry, a tennis ball and a Boston Celtics cap. Some would see that as clutter. I saw it as the kind of humanity our Olympic leaders lacked.

Not far from the little hill where Alice Hawthorne died, nor too far from where the Turkish photographer collapsed and died, is a giant screen that, on this day, was playing a Bud Greenspan film. The master Olympic storyteller is telling us about runners and jumpers and shooters and sailors and swimmers and gymnasts who persevere, overcome, achieve, excel. Sammy Lee, Los Angeles' fabled diver, is being interviewed. He is telling us how he became an Olympian. On the screen, Lee is 12 feet tall.

That is how Greenspan feels when he makes his films. He is proud of the Olympics and likes to stress their positives.

I am too, and I do too. Just not quite as much this time.

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