A personal tour of the Atlanta Olympics
August 4, 1996
Bombs, barbecues and Bailey highlight 1996 Games
By JIM O'LEARY
Executive Producer SLAM! Sports
ATLANTA -- It was touch and go for a bit there, but Atlanta survived the
Olympics. Or should I say the Olympics survived Atlanta.
The mood in the city as things wrapped up was one of fatigue. And
grumpiness. These Games wore everybody down.
Friday night, Atlanta police handcuffed and arrested a woman because,
when asked to step off the road, she only took one step back instead of getting
right up on the sidewalk. The woman was stubborn, the police overreacted.
Everyone's nerves are frayed.
What follows, in no particular order, are some of images of Atlanta
I'll take home.
THE BOMB ... I'm standing in a cafeteria across the street
from Centennial Olympic Park the morning after a pipe bomb filled with screws
and nails killed one woman and injured 111. It is raining lightly. Police are
scouring every inch of the ground for forensic evidence. Debris is everywhere.
FBI bomb experts are studying ground zero where the bomb was placed.
There is a green bench and on the bricks beneath it there is a large blood
stain. It is glistening. What I feel is sadness, but it soon gives way to
O' CANADA ... I'm high in the stands at Olympic Stadium.
Donovan Bailey and seven other 100-metre speedsters are in the starting blocks.
There is a false start, then another, and then another after that. Linford
Christie is disqualified. The stadium is silent. The tension, the anticipation
is unbelievable. The crack of the gun ignites the 80,000 spectators. The cheers
build to roars as Bailey approaches the finish line. It is a world record, 9.84
seconds, and the crowd is roaring so loudly I can feel it in the pit of my
stomach. Bailey is handed a Canadian flag, and Atlantans get to see the maple
leaf right side up, for a change. It looks grand.
POPULATION EXPLOSION ... It is 10:30 p.m. A bus ride from the
Olympic Stadium to downtown Altanta that normally takes 10 minutes has lasted
more than an hour. The city is gridlocked. Not just the cars, but the people
cramming the streets are going nowhere. There are no cabs, no buses. I head for
the subway and join a crush of sweaty, tired people pushing through the
turnstiles. The platforms are packed and lines of people are backed right up
the stairs. I retreat back to the street as police are closing the entrance to
the station. My final destination is about 2 miles away, so I walk. It is
after 1 a.m. by the time I'm in my bed. A trip that can be done by car in 15
minutes has taken more than 2 1/2 hours.
FAMILY AFFAIR ... It could be any day of the Olympics, on any
downtown street of Atlanta. Parents, holding tightly onto their children, are
wandering the streets, enjoying the crowds, the souvenier stands, the street
buskers, the refreshment booths. I'm talking to a man from small-town
It is the morning after the bomb and he is explaining that,
despite the tragedy, the Olympics stand for something that is good and noble
and that he wanted to show it to his children. I remember the disappointment of
my daughter six years ago when Atlanta beat out Toronto for the Games. I'd
promised to take her to the Games if they came to our home. I look at the man
and his two sons and I envy him.
WE DESERVE A BREAK TODAY ... It is the night of the opening
ceremonies and the stadium is going wild because Muhummad Ali has been awarded
the honor of lighting the Olympic flame. He suffers from Parkinson's disease
and, as he bends to ignite the flame, he is shaking. So to is my writing
It is a wonderful, touching moment. Then the flame comes to
life with fire and I can't believe my eyes. It looks like a large box of
McDonald's fries. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I suspect otherwise and the moment
SOUTHERN FRIED CROW ... I'm in the Olympic Stadium and Bruny
Surin has just handed Donovan Bailey the baton in the final of the men's relay.
There is a buzz. No one can believe it. The Canadians are headed for gold.
Bailey is nearing the finish line and he throws a hand in the air, just like
Ben Johnson did eight years ago when he wiped the smirk off the face of Carl
Lewis. The Canadian media is clustered together. There is a whoop of delight.
Yikes! It's me. An American reporter casts me an odd glance. I smile.
The Americans had been debating for days whether to include Lewis in
the relay so that he could win his 10th gold, as if the Yanks only had to show
up and victory was guaranteed. This feels good. For a few moments, at least,
those tiny American flags that you see everywhere have disappeared.
GOSPEL AND GUMBEL ... I'm in Centennial Olympic Park for a
ceremony to remember the victims of the bomb blast and to re-open the park to
the public. NBC has turned the site of the blast into an impromptu TV
Bryant Gumbel is waving to his fans; Katie Couric is posing
for photos and signing autographs just feet from where flowers have been laid
on a grassy hill in remembrance of Sarah Hawthorne, who died near that spot.
The air is festive. The "service" begins. The first speaker thanks the official
sponsor of the ceremony. Sarah Hawthorne's name is also mentioned once.
Eighteen minutes later, the service ends with a moment of silence. It lasts
about six seconds.
As a gospel choir sings on stage, a huge lineup is
forming to be first in the door when Bud World re-opens. It is all too weird
BARBECUE HEAVEN ... I'm in a rib shack, in a worn booth at the
back of a small room. This might be the smallest museum in the world. Above me
is a black and white photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. This was his
favorite table in his favorite restaurant in Atlanta. It is a run-down place in
need of a new ceiling, new floor, fresh paint. I've never been in a restaurant
with more atmosphere.The ribs are superb. The place is the same today as it was
when King last visited here. The people are friendly and helpful. A cook is
tending an open barbecue pit. Waitresses casually take orders. But the booth is
the main attraction. It is not roped off like a monument. It is a living museum
and the emotions it stirs are profound.
Read Jim's columns from the 1996