July 28, 1996
A moment of goodness
By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD -- Toronto Sun
ATLANTA -- It was, for a glorious week, the all-American party headquarters of the Atlanta Olympics, as curious and ultimately engaging a mix of innocence, wide-open friendliness and free enterprise run amok as Americans are themselves.
On 20 acres of state-owned, underdeveloped, down-at-the-heels downtown land, Centennial Park rose as a shrine to crass corporate culture.
But amid the giant, tented pavilions erected by official Games' sponsors were the jarring sweetnesses that make this country so compelling -- a magical fountain that was like a magnet for children sweaty from the sun; the dressed-to-kill high school bands which marched smartly through the grounds every day about noon, and which were invariably trailed by a procession of beaming parents; music from free nightly concerts on three different stages floating on the soft summer air.
A place for all
Everyone came here, Olympians whose competitions were over, their parents and friends, celebrities and ordinary Joes, tourists and journalists from dozens of countries and proud Atlantans, even Chelsea Clinton, teenage daughter of the U.S. president, who was drawn to the Coca-Cola's pin-trading centre.
Someone, a white male with an indistinguishable accent in FBI jargon, thought Centennial Park was the perfect target.
Precisely a week after the Olympics opened, on the night that the legendary king of soul, James Brown, was set to rock The House of Blues, this man placed a knapsack at the base of a four-storey NBC broadcast tower that sits in between the Swatch Pavilion and the AT&T Global Olympic Village. In the knapsack, stuffed among screws and nails that would shortly become flesh-tearing missiles, were as many as three crude pipe bombs.
Then, the FBI believes, about five minutes after one yesterday morning, he phoned 911 to report that there was a bomb in Centennial Park and that it would detonate in 30 minutes.
It did, about 1:25 a.m., earlier than advertised.
The worst the world had to offer, as assistant Canadian chef de mission Sylvia Sweeney said many hours later, had once again visited itself upon the best, just as it did in Munich in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes and officials were murdered by the Black September terrorist group.
"We older ones, who are a little bit tainted, we know this can happen," Sweeney, a former Olympian, said sorrowfully. "We know that's why there's barbed wire around the athletes' village. But the younger athletes still have rose-colored glasses. They believe the Games are the epitome of goodness."
Remarkably, the Games manage, still, to be just that.
Yesterday, as a thick trail of blood stained a small brick square and ran past a pretty boxed tree and a delicate green bench in the park, the magnificent Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle, the Felix and Oscar of Canadian rowing, won a gold medal in the double sculls.
As Olympic flags all across Atlanta stood at half-staff in honor of the two dead and 111 injured in the bomb blast, the Maple Leaf was raised for the first time at these Games, and shy Heddle, in white socks, and cocky McBean, barefoot, stood on the dock at lovely Lake Lanier and sang their national anthem.
Later, on the same body of water, singles' sculler Silken Laumann fought a gallant battle for gold, and took silver, her slender body heaving with exertion, and later still, Derek Porter did the same thing.
They were living, panting reminders of all that is worthy about the Olympics -- the joy of watching the robust young human animal work at play, the shock of knowing that a mind is willing a body through pain most of us will never know and very few could bear, the edgy, brilliant spareness of sport.
Iain James Sydie, a Canuck badminton player originally from Richmond Hill, ended up crawling on the second floor of the AT&T building to a stairwell, down the stairs and outside, where he and his parents were rushed on to a bus back to the village. Scared at first, frantic for his two brothers who had left the pavilion just 15 minutes before the blast, he is angry now. "I don't want to live my life like that, cooped up in the athletes' village because some idiot does something like this."
Michelle Cameron, a former synchronized swimmer now with athletes' services for the Canadians, was also furious. She was planning extra videos, maybe a talent show for the outdoor patio at the village, anything to remind the athletes "of the good things," anything to stop the tyranny. As the very smart Sylvia Sweeney said with disdain, "Terrorism is no longer looking to shoot the president, but to embarrass a country, and life means nothing to those people."
The carnage in Atlanta yesterday was not as great as it was in Munich 24 years ago, and in the absence of an attributable political message, there was a sense that this act was not so bad, merely because the damage was not so bad, after all.
But the damage isn't physical, but psychological. Terrorism, whatever the delivery system, aims to keep all of us from the pleasure of what is good and noble in our world.
I wanted, so very much, to be at Lake Lanier yesterday, to hear my country's anthem, to see my flag raised, to see our wonderful rowers. Instead, I was downtown, waiting for security briefings.
But when Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle stood on that decking, I went up close to one of the dozens of TV sets at the press centre here and stood as close as I could get. There was no sound, but I watched the two young women sing, and I could hear O Canada in my head. Or was it my pounding heart, the blood suffusing my face? No matter; it was my own small victory, a moment of goodness preserved. In the days to come, these are the things that will matter. These are the things that will save us.