July 28, 1996 in Nation/World

Maniac Finds Blood Sport In Atlanta

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Re

“The safest place in the world this summer will be Atlanta. We expect no incidents.”

- Bill Rathburn, chief of security

The night was Atlanta’s idea of balmy. TGIF had given way to Hang On It’s Saturday.

One week old, the 1996 Olympic Games finally felt like a party. Earlier in the evening, Team USA had broken out of its basketball funk and beaten China by 63 points - a run-jump-jamfest with comic relief provided by that Village Person himself, Charles Barkley, going through the motions of “YMCA” during a timeout.

On the stage at Centennial Olympic Park - a 21-acre downtown midway designed to bring Olympians and ordinary folk together at the crossroads of commerce - an all-purpose good-times band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack cranked up their amps. There was dancing and drinking and din for 40,000 or more.

Then Tom Davis, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation officer, noticed a knapsack at the foot of a light and sound tower.

And then it blew up.

We expect no incidents.

Persuade us those words weren’t a dare.

Again we are reminded that sport for some people is terror and evil, not track and field. Again we are reminded that some men award themselves medals for mayhem. Again we are reminded that in the most savage circles, the senseless taking of life is considered a challenge every bit as noble as pinning a Russian.

A length of pipe, a little plastic explosive and a blasting cap and suddenly you have your own cable channel and the president talking about you. Talking to you.

The homemade bomb that thundered through the park at 1:25 a.m. Saturday ripped up a section of the tech tower’s corrugated metal skirt and ripped open an Olympic wound which had taken 24 years to scab over.

Far more devastating, it ripped apart lives.

The safest place in the world this summer will be Atlanta.

Alice Hawthorne, 44, died from a wound to the head. Melih Uzunyol, 40, a TV cameraman from Turkey, died from a heart attack. More than 100 others left their blood on the ground. Thousands more have scars that won’t show.

“It makes me scared,” admitted swimmer Janet Evans. “It makes me want to go home.”

She has that luxury. Her events are over. But within six hours of the blast, Francois Carrard of the International Olympic Committee declared, “The Games will go on.”

So we board another bus. For pingpong.

It makes more sense than you might think.

Wars no longer stop for the Olympics and the Olympics will not stop for a psychopath, though they do slow down. On any other Olympic morning - no matter how early - International Boulevard is a human river with tiny islands of elbow room, flowing into the park. By 7 a.m. Saturday, it was a dry bed. The AT&T; Global Village, steps away from the bomb site, was the Ghostal Village.

The world meets here every day, with introductions by three-letter Olympic abbreviations. ISL on a warmup is Iceland. ARU on a T-shift is Aruba.

Now you see just one uniform. ATF. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In the rain and gloom, its agents place scraps of evidence - and the gladness of these Games - in plastic bags and stab little pink flags in the ground to mark the spot. The sponsor never expected this kind of bang for his buck.

Imagine a world with no limits.

Imagine a world with no dimwits.

We expect no incidents.

“I hate that this happened in my town,” said Akari (“just Akari”), whose Olympic job today is hawking stuffed Izzys and will be something else tomorrow. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it. It shook the ground. Not fireworks. Too loud. Something bad. Then I saw the people running. I saw a guy on the ground, bleeding. Why do this?”

Matt Ghaffari, the giant Greco-Roman wrestler with the silver medal, hates it that this happened in his Olympics.

“Now when people say 1996, they’re not going to remember the medals we won,” he said, “they’re going to remember the terrorism.”

Just as the 1972 Games are remembered for the terrorism, the ground-breaking terrorism. There was ideology behind that butchery, so you could process it and despise it at the same time. Now our maniacs revel in their anonymous notoriety and we’re mystified.

Life goes on. Does that mean the Olympics have to?

“There are more police and security in this city than I’ve ever seen, and this still happened,” said Mike Keller, who coaches decathlon favorite Dan O’Brien. “You can’t stop all these wackos. People are realizing we have to live with it, unfortunately. What are you going to prove by stopping the Olympics?”

That you can be terrorized. No courage in that.

The safest place in the world this summer will be Atlanta.

Atlanta seems to have decided this is all about pluck and grit, and perhaps it is. ACOG the organizing committee - even found necessary to put out a press release touting attendance as being higher Saturday than Friday at some events.

“And the scalpers were well represented!” it gushed. “Seventeen dollar handball tickets were going for $75.”

Guess people will pay extra for the moment of silence and the flags at half-staff. Or maybe they’ll pay premium for a secure venue and skip the fun place that used to be free.

A few days ago, we appointed a brave little gymnast as the soul of these Games. We forgot about the dark side of that soul, the side that puts a pipe bomb in a knapsack, sets it down in a crowd and heads home to watch CNN.

We forgot to expect it in the safest place in the world.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Tragedy at the Olympics

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email