A triumph as a sporting event Games: It's going to be tough to top the Atlanta Olympics' sporting success. Overshadowing it all, however, was a pipe bomb that killed one person and injured 111.

Atlanta Olympics

August 05, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Kerri Strug.

Michael Johnson.

Alice Hawthorne.

Gymnast turned hero, track star turned legend and bystander turned victim, these were the people who defined a spectacular yet ultimately troubled Centennial Summer Olympics that ended last night.

The Games looked great on television. America was uplifted when Strug vaulted from obscurity to stardom and when Johnson peeled away layers of pressure and expectation to unveil sprint performances for the ages, winning the 400 meters, setting a world record in the 200.

But in the end, the Centennial Games will be remembered because of the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing Hawthorne and injuring 111 others.

For all the talk of how Atlanta and the country rallied together after the explosion, of how blood was wiped from the bricks and a park was turned into a shrine, there remained a sense that something had gone wrong in Atlanta.

Even as the closing ceremonies unfolded last night, as thousands of athletes gathered inside the Olympic Stadium for the final time, the Olympic bomber remained at large.

From the start, Atlanta's $1.7 billion Olympics were bedeviled by glitches. For every logistical triumph, there appeared to be a stinging defeat.

Some 9 million fans attended these Games, more than the 1984 and 1992 Summer Olympics combined.

The bus system to transport athletes, fans and media personnel teetered on collapse in the opening days.

All 197 Olympic nations competed, 79 winning medals and 53 claiming golds.

The $40 million computer system that was supposed to provide results didn't work for days.

Atlanta itself also had all the charm of a tacky state fair, its streets and parking lots lined with tents of vendors hawking burgers and T-shirts. Many of the vendors went bust, as hundreds of thousands converged on corporate America's gigantic live advertisement, Centennial Olympic Park.

The display of commercialism even annoyed some members of the International Olympic Committee. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC, said yesterday: "Sport must be directed by sport itself, not by commercialization as was the case in Atlanta."

But the IOC, much like professional sports owners in the United States, also has contributed to this rush for dollars. Inflated television rights fees and corporate sponsorships enable the sporting bureaucrats to hold on to power and keep this gigantic athletic event afloat in a sea of cash.

A breach in security

Yet overshadowing all was the breach of a $301 million, 30,000-person security system, undone by a homemade pipe bomb.

Organizers of the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, say they will take many lessons away from Atlanta. They say they will focus carefully on the security of fans. They also promise a less corporate atmosphere.

Sydney might have little trouble topping Atlanta in terms of atmosphere, security and logistics.

But it's going to be tough to top Atlanta's sporting success. Athletes smashed barriers in water and on land; more than 30 world and Olympic records were established. If judged merely as a sporting event, the Atlanta Olympics were a raging success.

You want greatness? There was Canada's Donovan Bailey, establishing the men's 100-meter record, and then anchoring his country's 4 x 100 m relay triumph over the United States.

There was American swimmer Amy Van Dyken, claiming four golds, winning, she said, for all those "high school nerds" who had bad clothes, bad hair, good grades and big dreams.

And there was Johnson, lowering the 200 standard, letting out a scream as he crossed the finish, leaving other athletes to bow in his presence.

You want stories? There was yesterday's men's marathon won by Josia Thugwane, South Africa's first gold-medal-winning black athlete.

And there was Greco-Roman wrestler Matt Ghaffari, whose family fled Iran for the United States when he was a teen-ager, who lost in the final to Alexander Karelin of Russia, but who managed to become a star for showing an uncommon human touch. He cried when he got his silver. He visited victims of the bomb blast.

"These Olympics are a great lesson in being an American and turning something bad into a good," he said.

You want bittersweet farewells? There was Carl Lewis, flecks of gray in his hair but spring in his legs, winning one last long jump gold. And there was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, bandaged and ailing, claiming a long jump bronze.

The world may have come to Atlanta, but America came to celebrate its athletes, who piled up 101 medals to lead the world. Chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" echoed in gyms and stadiums, and athletes who arrived unknowns beyond the boundaries of their sports emerged as stars.

Games of triumph for women

"When you walk down the street, everybody knows you by name," said diver Mary Ellen Clark, a bronze medalist in platform diving. "It's such a wonderful thing. I feel like the girl next door."

For American women, these were Games of triumph. American female gymnasts won the team gold and likely claimed another Olympic prize: long-lasting stardom with a series of tours and speaking engagements. Softball shortstop Dot Richardson became a star. So did basketball center Lisa Leslie. The U.S. women's soccer team even claimed a gold on one of the most hallowed college football fields of all, at the University of Georgia.

"We take small steps, but this is bigger than most of them," said soccer star Mia Hamm on the impact the team gold will have on women's sports in America.

There will be a legacy of women in record numbers going for golds, of beautiful stadiums and of shimmering swimming pools. And there will be memories.

Atlanta was a place of heroes. And it was also a place of victims.

A bomb went off. A mother died.

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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