August 5, 1996
SO LONG ... AND I WON'T BE BACK
By STEVE SIMMONS
ATLANTA - It was 40 minutes after the medal ceremony, and Annie Pelletier was standing by a fence near the practice pool of the aquatics centre, wearing her new prize, almost in tears.
"What's wrong?'' someone asked.
"There's so much confusion,'' she said with some sadness. "No one knows where I'm supposed to go (to doping). No one knows who's supposed to take me there. No one seems to know anything.''
And within this single unfortunate vignette, an Olympic moment spoiled, much of the story of the Games of the 26th Olympiad can be told. These were the Games of contradiction, all about athletic elegance and logistical incompetence.
Every Olympics takes on its own shape, and this one suffered everywhere but on the playing field. When we came to the last day of Lillehammer, two winters ago in Norway, there were raw emotions everywhere. No one wanted to say goodbye.
But on Saturday night in Georgia, Donovan Bailey, Glenroy Gilbert, Robert Esmie and Bruny Surin captured Canada's greatest moment at these Olympic Games, and the next morning they were gone.
Why stay? Get outta here.
But with all the adverse conditions of congestion, lost buses, missed buses, sporting snafus, overzealous lawmen and IBM's shocking fall from grace, there were moments and magic and achievements so grand they cannot be buried in the inadequacy of Atlanta.
An Olympics unfolds unlike any other sporting event. It is a fairy tale in full life colors, so many stories, so many emotions. Heart, spirit and guts are in evidence here, and not only with those who win medals.
We were introduced to people we didn't know before, athletes who step on the big stage for the very first time to take a bow. We met Clara Hughes and Curtis Myden, both doubled medallists, no longer unknown Canadians. We watched with electricity as Bailey and Michael Johnson left us breathless. We saw Irish swimmer Michelle Smith come from nowhere and step to the podium four times. We saw, up close, the joy in Marianne Limpert's swim, the pain of Joanne Malar, the disappointment of Wendy Wiebe and Colleen Miller.
We saw, up close, the fierce pride of Mike Strange, the last hurrah of Steve Bauer, the surprising silver-medal ride of little Brian Walton.
And we saw, once again, the Canadian rowing team score six medals, led by Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle.
But beneath the mosaic of sport that took place, there was troubling and uncomfortable subtext everywhere. The Games began with such a feel-good moment, with a trembling Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame, but they ended with people exiting as quickly as they could.
Around here, the past few days, it hasn't mattered who was doing the talking - athlete, media person, volunteer - the conversation has been the same. All anyone really wants is to go home. There was confusion before the Games began, and there was confusion yesterday as the Games came to an end.
The transportation problems that were addressed but never fixed started before the Olympics did. The computer difficulties were addressed but never really fixed. The athletic glitches - decathlon scheduling, rowers commandeering a bus, the Canadian fencer who barely arrived on time for his event - cast a pall from which there would be no recovery.
And we have come this far, intentionally, without mentioning the pipe bomb of an early Saturday morning, which killed one Georgia woman. I will forever remember the 28-year-old man, still with some blood on his hands, crying outside Centennial Park, afraid he had lost his sister.
Around the same corner, another man stood, offering to sell his story and his photographs to anyone who would pay.
One thing we never forgot at these Olympic Games: We never forgot we were in America.
Of all that was unremarkable, the city itself would rank among the least breathtaking. The people were wonderful, attendance for events was astounding, but the sense of what Atlanta is, and what is wants to be, was lost. Atlanta turned itself into a county fair for hucksters, a festival for cheap T-shirt sales people.
I left Lillehammer wanting to return to Norway one day. I left Albertville hoping to visit the French Alps again. I left Los Angeles with a headache from chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A," but with admiration for that city's Olympic achievement.
I leave Atlanta not caring if I ever see this city again.
It is not disdain as much as disappointment.
And with it, there is a sense of sadness for what could have, and should have been. In the end, American ingenuity has never seemed so unattractive and so inadequate. It makes saying goodbye easier than it ever has been before.