Glitz, hype overshadow real tragedy ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 31, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- It was supposed to be a somber occasion. Instead, it bordered on a circus, if not a downright celebration.

Celebrity worshipers, religious zealots, corporate acolytes -- they were all on hand for the reopening of Centennial Olympic Park yesterday, along with that other staple of life in late 20th-century America, the news media.

A young woman grabbed Katie Couric's attention, then shouted, "Katie, I love the Jesus in your eyes!"

Later, the "Today Show" co-host posed for photographs and signed autographs beside the tower where a bomb went off early Saturday morning.

Oh yes, she also found time to interview Richard Jewell, back when no one knew he reportedly was the focus of a federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and left 111 injured.

Richard Jewell?

The hero security guard who first alerted police to the bomb?

Uh, that would be the man.

If Jewell indeed committed this crime, perhaps it's the security guards who should walk through metal detectors, not the spectators.

The crowds keep chanting "USA! USA!" and the organizers keep smiling, but it's quite a glimpse of America the rest of the world is getting.

Was that a memorial service yesterday, or a pep rally?

Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young proclaimed victory from the stage of the AT&T Global Village, apparently unaware that the FBI's leading suspect worked for a private security firm hired by -- you guessed it -- AT&T.

The scene was disturbing, deflating, depressing.

The victims?

They seemed merely an excuse to pursue other agendas.

If not for the children splashing in the fountains, the people of all nations strolling down the wide promenades, the only conclusion would have been that this great and troubled land is hopelessly lost.

But freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, even the freedom to stage a capitalist orgy -- these are fundamental American rights. You take the extreme with the routine in this country, especially at an event the size of the Olympics.

It's just that right now, everything seems so twisted, so bizarre.

Americans routinely poke fun at the inefficiency of other nations, but look what is happening in Atlanta, a leading communications center in supposedly the greatest country on earth.

IBM's failure to process Olympic results was one thing. But now news reports say it took 911 operators 10 minutes to react to the initial bomb threat because they were searching for the address of Centennial Park.

Amid all the chest-thumping, few notice.

Even fewer care.

"Y'all want to go to the crime scene?" a man asked his family yesterday, as if the site of the bombing was just another Olympic attraction, smack in between the Swatch Pavilion and the AT&T Global Village.

The memorial service gave the same number of mentions to AT&T (one) as it did to the two people who died. The moment of silence lasted all of nine seconds.

"We're here not to wallow in tragedy, but to create a triumph, a triumph of the human spirit," Young said.

Some triumph.

A helicopter buzzed overhead as Young spoke, a sign of the increased security at the park. Signs welcoming visitors said, "As a condition of entry into Centennial Olympic Park, all persons consent to a search of themselves and their belongings."

And yet, even now, all is not lost.

The crowds kept flowing to the venues after the bombing, and they began flowing into the park the moment it reopened at 8 a.m. yesterday. There's a certain self-congratulatory tone to this show of Olympic spirit, from the organizers down to the fans. But there's a certain nobility to it, too.

"We just had to be here," said Ginny Acocella of Marietta, Ga., who came to the park yesterday with her teen-age daughter Kerry and a pair of friends from Florida. "If you don't come, it's like, they won. People worked too long and too hard to have this ruined by these unspeakable people."

U.S. swimmer Janet Evans represented the athletes at the memorial service, just three days after fleeing the park when the bomb exploded. Volunteers handed out green and gold sympathy ribbons. Relatives of the victims sat in the front rows.

People clasped hands, raised them to the sky and swayed to music from the Georgia Mass Choir. The service ended to the strains of Bob Marley's "One Love," with the video board displaying the words for peace in dozens of languages.

It could have been a scene from a commercial.

But many visitors were solemn.

Linda Jenkins of Atlanta was one of those who laid flowers at the foot of the tower. She said it was the idea of her daughter, Mary Campbell Jenkins. Mary, 30, had been at the park Saturday, 15 minutes before the explosion occurred.

"I suppose the reason I'm here is the reason everyone else is here -- sort of a desire to vote with my feet, to stand up for sacred public space, in a city that doesn't have much public space," Mary said. "[The park] has created a physical and psychological space that Atlanta hasn't had in my lifetime."

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