COVER OLYMPICS

TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

On the track and in the sculls, Canadians excel after a bomb rocks the Olympics

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 5 1996
COVER OLYMPICS

TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY

On the track and in the sculls, Canadians excel after a bomb rocks the Olympics

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 5 1996

It was shaping up as a picture-perfect end to an otherwise decidedly imperfect start for Atlanta’s troubled 1996 version of the Olympic Summer Games. After a week filled with gripes about everything from American jingoism to inflated prices to endless traffic and technology foul-ups, the city was finally living up to its fabled reputation for Southern hospitality last Friday night. The day’s athletic events went smoothly, the logistics were relatively glitch-free and well after midnight, tens of thousands of revellers were still gathered in Centennial Olympic Park, listening to an open-air concert by Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. Then, shortly after 1 a.m. on Saturday, a telephone operator picked up an emergency 911 call from a man who, an FBI agent said later, “made a specific threat” about a bomb in the park. Eighteen minutes later, the bomb went off in front of a four-storey-high tower where technicians controlled the sound and lighting near the stage. It exploded with a bright blue flash and an impact that shook an area of three city blocks, blowing out windows within 100 m. The blast caused one death directly, resulted in an additional fatal heart attack, and left more than 100 other people injured.

In that instant, an event that is supposed to celebrate the fellowship of the international athletic community was tragically transformed into a far more deadly contest, with life-and-death stakes. As Canadian rower Silken Laumann said: “It’s sad that something that is supposed to be about peace and fair play becomes a target like this.” The bombing, and follow-up warnings that proved to be false alarms, cast a pall over the close of the first full week of the 16-day Atlanta Games. And the casualties took some of the shine off a Canadian day of triumph that began with a gold medal and two silvers in rowing races and closed with Donovan Bailey powering his way to victory—in world-record time—over a formidable field in the 100-m dash.

The Atlanta bomb blast caught Americans still reeling from the explosion of a TWA jetliner 10 days earlier that killed 230 people and appeared to be an act of sabotage (page 10). And now, they were confronted for a second time by the prospect of death by terrorism. The dead were a 44-year-old American woman killed by the blast, and a Turkish cameraman, 40, who suffered a heart attack while running to film the aftermath of the explosion. Most of the injured—none of whom are believed to be Canadian—were wounded by sheet-metal shrapnel blown out from a point near the tower.

In the immediate aftermath, many people were too stunned to realize the enormity of what had just occurred. “There were a lot of people not knowing what was happening,” said Michelle Cameron, an Athlete Services worker with the Canadian team and a gold medallist in synchronized swimming at the 1988 Olympics who was nearby. Then, she said, “the streets were flooded with police and fire trucks.” And once again, the world was confronted with a shocking reminder that, no matter what the circumstances or security precautions—including more than 30,000 security personnel—there is no such thing as a completely safe place. Along with the lost lives and broken bodies caused by the blast, there were inevitable questions about whether the Olympics, which originated from the simpler ideals of earlier times with amateur athletes, are still appropriate in an era of professionalism, commercialism—and terrorism. There were also haunting reminders of the 11 Israelis murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games—and the sad twist that, earlier in the week, their surviving family members failed in an attempt to get official sanction for a ceremony commemorating their loss.

All of that clouded the efforts of the more than 10,000 athletes competing from 197 countries and territories. For Canadian athletes, the blast came just hours before the beginning of what proved to be their single most productive medal-winning day so far in the Atlanta Games. Their Saturday victories raised their one-week total to eight medals—two golds, three silvers and three bronze.

In the morning at Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta, Kathleen Heddle and Marnie McBean won gold in the double sculls, while Laumann and Derek Porter took silvers in the single-scull races (page 14). That night in the Olympic Stadium, Bailey turned in a shattering performance, surging to the finish in 9.84 seconds (l/100th of a second under the world mark). Then he ran on, shouting in triumph, and completed his victory lap waving a Maple Leaf flag handed to him from the audience (page 13).

The week had already made medal stars of Canadians Clara Hughes in cycling and Marianne Limpert and Curtis Myden in swimming, and crowned champions from around the world such as Ireland’s amazing swimmer Michelle Smith (page 16). As the Games continued after the bombing, they did so amid a steady rain in Atlanta, flags lowered to half-mast at all venues. At the same time, already tight security precautions were stepped up to a new level that was to remain in place until the end of the Games— and would be felt by virtually everyone near an Olympic site. At Lake Lanier, the site of the rowing finals, soldiers bearing machine-guns patrolled the grounds, and other soldiers replaced the usual Olympic security personnel at checkpoints. Troops with flashlights scanned under buses carrying media and spectators, and all bags taken to seats and working areas were examined. Even the athletes faced thorough searches.

In the wake of the blast, some security personnel at the Games privately expressed relief that the death and injury toll was not worse. The park where the explosion occurred has been popular as a free-admission gathering place and entertainment centre for events surrounding the Games, featuring a giant beer pavilion, virtual reality rides and concerts by acts including longtime star Kenny Rogers. As well, FBI agents said that there may in fact have been more than one explosive device involved in the blast. There were indications that the bomb held nails and screws, amounting to what FBI spokesman Woody Johnson described as “an anti-personnel fragmentation device, a homemade bomb.”

Before the Games began, the chief organizer, Billy Payne, said: “The safest place on this wonderful planet will be Atlanta during the time of our Games.” And for Payne, a real estate developer, Centennial Olympic Park was to be one of the principal showcases, a refurbished facility built in the middle of what had been one of the city’s most rundown areas. On the day after the blast, the park was closed and desolate, with barriers blocking all the nearby streets.

For both athletes and spectators, everything changed. Outside the Olympic Village, the tension was palpable. Inside, it was hard to imagine how it could become more tense. Even before the bomb, some athletes and organizers had said they could not decide whether their isolation inside the Village was a curse or a relief. In an interview three days earlier, Deryk Snelling, a Canadian swim coach, said: “The scary part is that we’re separated from people, and I wish we weren’t because these should be the people’s games. The parents and everybody who’s worked with the kids can’t lean over the fence and shake hands without being stopped. But that’s life in America—and probably everywhere else, come to think of it.” Even at the meeting place of many nationalities on a soft summer night, violence became a part of everyday life.