By the end of these Olympics, the Centennial Olympic Park
bombing had barely survived as a metaphor. In some quarters this
terrifying episode had been reduced to the status of a civil
disturbance, a weird stunt gone horribly wrong. Midweek musings
upon Munich had been overtaken by Atlanta astonishments. There
was the fastest man alive (there always is, but this man was
faster), the world's best athlete, a swim darling or two, a
courageous pixie. There was redemption, endurance and surprise.
The bombing? It stood as a shrill reminder that our national
smugness was no longer a geographical right. But as shattering
as it was, as scary as it was in the immediate aftermath, it
grew distant, crowded into a corner of history by the Olympic
hubbub. There were world records, unprecedented doubles, debate
over a red-haired, green-eyed swimmer, who was treated more
rudely than she should have been. There was a dinger-hitting doc
named Dot. And controversy, unrelenting controversy, over a
relay team. There was, for the first time, beach volleyball (and
a minifuror over a player's breast implants) and mountain biking
(no implants that we know of there).
As TV requires, there were tears of defeat, a huge wrestler
quaking in his thwarted obsession. And there were tears of
victory, another huge wrestler, this one racked by his ultimate
achievement. All of which gives you an idea of how much fizz
builds up when something as volatile as hope is capped for four
There was still the Dream Team, but by now it was regarded as so
far outside the realm of fair play that hardly anyone paid
attention to its players, except to note their comings and
goings at Atlanta restaurants. Instead, other U.S. teams that
proved nearly as dominant--women's basketball, soccer and
softball--drew the enthusiastic following that the original
August 4, 1996
These Olympics had enough at the end to disarm any bomber, and
that was as much Atlanta's doing as the athletes'. The host
city, in organizing these Games, had decided that nothing, save
for a few bus routes (a thousand bus rides, a thousand stories),
could be left to chance. Unsure that sports alone would be
adequate, or perhaps unsure of its own indigenous appeal,
Atlanta developed a parallel universe for its millions of
visitors, a kind of county fair--plywood booths and Ferris
wheels everywhere you looked. It was a surplus of civic
gimcrackery, the likes of which had never been seen at the
This was not popular with everybody, especially certain members
of the International Olympic Committee, who derided the sidewalk
celebration (or merchandising--your pick) as so much "commercial
clutter." And it was true that the commercialization of the
Games reached some kind of zenith (or nadir--again, your pick)
in Atlanta. There's a big bill to foot, no question, but you
have to wonder what the foreign visitors were telling the folks
back home about America's apparent chemical dependence on Coke.
The circus atmosphere of Atlanta's downtown streets may have
been inevitable, but in Centennial Olympic Park, a 21-acre
preserve of corporate tents and sponsored soundstages laid out
over bricks engraved with the names of individual donors, it was
institutionalized. There was the Bud bar and the Swatch museum,
and long lines to get into both. The park was a kind of town
square for these Games, and as strange as it was, it probably
characterized this nation better than the events themselves. The
park had no architectural pedigree, no history, no sense of
importance. Yet it drew huge crowds who were there maybe as much
to cool off in the Olympic-rings fountain as to trade souvenir
pins (is this a great country or what?). And families, with
tickets or without, seemed to be having fun.
And fun is what seemed most at risk after the bombing. This
park-cum-block party became ground zero, a pipe bomb exploding
during a late-night concert, the mall's congenial spirit
instantly destroyed by crude shrapnel, screws and nails flying
into the darkness.
One woman was killed in the blast, a Turkish cameraman died
while rushing to cover its aftermath, and 111 people were hurt,
jeopardizing the Games, so skittish were organizers. After the
Munich slaughter 24 years before, it seemed a vaguely familiar
notion, the Olympics as war: You could go and you might never
come back. But it was quickly understood that the bomb, going
off in this part of Atlanta, was not a threat to the Olympics
but just one more injury to the American way of life.
There was, by the end of the Games, no clear understanding of
why the bomb was set off. It was terrible, of course, blood on
the bricks where families had walked, a continuing erosion of
innocence. But three days later, the athletic events themselves
barely missing a beat, the park reopened, scrubbed,
reconsecrated, an example of patriotism during a time when medal
counts alone were no longer good for much chest thumping. Here
they could proclaim, Americans don't back down. Yet they do;
just by degrees. If you thought to look around as a mournful
trumpet gave way to a rollicking gospel choir during that
Tuesday morning ceremony, you might have imagined watchtowers
where there were none before.
The tragedy had at least one restorative effect. The efforts of
Atlanta, which had seemed a little bumbling and not a little
mercenary, now reflected a simpler theme: Atlantans just want to
have some fun. Toward the end of the second week, the city's
intentions were more clearly understood and better appreciated.
The park even seemed quaint in its recovery, and the
entrepreneurs no longer came across as so nettlesome. People did
seem to be having fun.
Anyway, there were these Games, a conglomeration of a lot of
stuff you wouldn't ordinarily cross the street to see but that
were now, for whatever reason, riveting. A ponytailed archer was
the hero one day. Badmintoners, race walkers, ribbon-waving
gymnasts and kayakers all had their day in the sun.
And then there was the stuff that's always riveting to sports
fans but that was now all-important to everybody. These were
critical things to decide. Who's fastest? how much can a person
lift? how high can he jump? Every four years, we need to know.
And, as usual, not a few of these questions were answered with a
drama that was genuine, even beyond the broadcasters' ability to
generate pathos out of, well, often nothing.
Graying, 35-year-old Carl Lewis lingered stubbornly at center
stage and then uncorked a jump that won gold, his ninth in four
trips to the Olympics. Then, that not being drama enough, the
old egotist lobbied for a spot on the U.S. 4x100 relay team.
Many breathless newsbreaks later, Lewis was still not running
the anchor. No doubt he left town smirking when that team, after
much debate over whether history (and Lewis) or fair play needed
to be observed, lost to Canada. Except for when the U.S.
boycotted or was disqualified, it was the first time American
runners had failed to win the 4x100 relay.
Stories: Dan O'Brien, who was favored to win the 1992 decathlon
and then didn't even make the U.S. team, proved finally that he
was as good as advertised. An 18-year-old woman (we think you
know her name) limped to the runway and made the vault of
her--and our--lifetime, bad leg and all.
There were dozens of stories and, as usual, all were unexpected
yet predictable, all amazing yet reassuring. And once more they
were able to lift us above the confusion and the random meanness
of spirit that dog us. Their message, encrypted in these Games,
is the same every four years: You'd be surprised at what I can
do; you'd be surprised at what you can do. And, of course, we
are surprised. Every time, we're surprised.