Skip to main content


Nothing moves. The air is still, 10,946 voices stop, the
mournful seconds tick off. Everything about this moment of
silence calls for an absolute freeze. But Mary Ellen Clark can't
help herself. She begins to twitch: Her dive is coming. Her
moment. She stands, on a platform 10 meters high, the first and
the oldest American to dive on this Saturday morning, a classic
Olympic tale in the making. Yet the crowd at the Georgia Tech
Aquatic Center has forgotten her for now; it stands, thinking of
Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park and the pipe bomb that roared
and sliced through the 1996 Summer Games 10 hours before. It
stands, remembering the two dead and the 111 injured, the
panicked revelers who scattered in a spray of nails and screws.
It stands, thinking of the many days left in these 1996 Olympics
and of all the packed sidewalks and subway cars.

Clark bows her head in respect, she squares her feet... but she
can't help herself. Her triceps burn. Her dive is coming. She
picks up a towel and wipes down her shoulders. She shakes her
muscles, thinking only, Forward 1 1/2 somersault. The silence
ends. Clark steps, she sails out over the water. The bomb hasn't
touched her. She cares, but not too much. It is a very good
dive. "We have only two days to compete, so we need to be
focused," Clark will say later. "We need to trust and let go.
Let the security people do their thing. We're athletes."

Athletes still. That is the merciful thing. Only hours after the
worst event to scar the Olympic movement since the killing of 11
Israelis at the 1972 Games in Munich, the 10,750 '96 Olympians
from 197 countries woke up as neither victims nor survivors. On
the morning after one alert security official discovered a
suspicious-looking bag wedged at the base of a sound-and-light
tower at about 1 a.m. and set in motion an evacuation that
surely saved lives, games were played. On Saturday, Monica Seles
beat Gabriela Sabatini in tennis, Clark won a bronze medal in
the platform, Donovan Bailey screamed out his triumph in the 100
meters. Volleyball happened. Boxing. Baseball. "We've come to
jump in the Olympic Games, and nothing's going to put us off
that," said British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, who claimed
silver that night. "Once we were on the track, we were thinking
about one thing: trying to compete to the best of our ability."

Billy Payne, chief of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic
Games (ACOG), had promised that "the safest place on this
wonderful planet will be Atlanta, Georgia, during the time of
our Games." For ACOG organizers and for those who believe the
essence of the Olympics rises solely from athletic competition,
the continued single-mindedness of the athletes is comforting.
It makes it easy to think that the Atlanta Games might yet
transcend the dozens of bomb threats since the Centennial Park
blast, the daily evacuations of malls and hotels, and find a
signature moment in some wonderful performance. But the fact is,
the bombing irrevocably changed the tenor of the 1996 Olympics.

Atlanta, a booster's paradise that sought through these Games to
confirm its status as a major city, now suffers the civic
bruising feared by Montreal, Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul and
Barcelona. Cruelly, Atlanta will be known for years as the city
that bragged about the largest peacetime security operation in
U.S. history...but couldn't protect the Olympics. "The whole
spirit of the Games is lost," says Australian freestyle swimmer
Daniel Kowalski, who won three medals. "These Olympics will now
be remembered for the deaths and bomb threats and not the
athletic feats."

"My heart goes out to the organizing committee," says LeRoy
Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, "because it
does put a cloud over the Games."

It is a cloud that ACOG, through severe errors of judgment, did
little to deter. Payne, who saw Centennial Park as his legacy to
Atlanta, one that would long outlive the Games, pushed hard for
the 21-acre enclave to be a low-security village square where
those with and without tickets could mix and mill and taste the
'96 Games, unhindered by the metal detectors and bag searches
required at every other Olympic site. The park, located in the
center of Atlanta's downtown Olympic complex and completed just
days before the Games began, was to be nothing less than ground
zero for the Olympic spirit, and organizers felt the spirit
couldn't stand the same protection that Olympic athletes and
millions of airline customers experience every day.

Yet Centennial Park ultimately was, by design, more a
marketplace than a shrine to Olympic sportsmanship. Though
Payne's hope for Centennial Park was modeled on the warm,
architecturally stunning plazas he saw in Barcelona, the park
was, as much as anything, a place to seize the main chance.
Corporate sponsors made Atlanta's gathering place a carnival
midway. It was fun, it was loud--and, most important for a
corporation like AT&T, which poured $30 million into its Global
Olympic Village, it was crowded.

"Unfortunately some people within [ACOG] still believe that when
you have visible security, it's not always a good thing," says
Brent Brown, president of Chesley, Brown Consultants, an Atlanta
security firm. "They believe it leaves a bad perception. And
that's not good for the businesses that spent so much to be down
there and wanted as many people there as possible."

Worse, the park was surrounded by such highly secured venues as
the Georgia World Congress Center, the Omni, the Georgia Dome,
the Main Press Center and the hotel that housed the Dream Team
and other prized athletes. Centennial Park was, in effect, the
soft underbelly of an otherwise impregnable armor. Whoever
planted the Atlanta bomb "didn't come in the [Athletes']
Village--they couldn't," says Micki King, a former
gold-medal-winning diver who was in the Munich Village in 1972
and was managing the U.S. diving team in Atlanta last week.
"Security in the Village was a deterrent. They picked the one
vulnerable spot."

This isn't just hindsight. Before the Games, security experts
were privately critical of ACOG's lack of, as one specialist put
it, "thorough planning." Jeff Beatty, a former officer in Delta
Force, the elite Army antiterrorist unit, trained the FBI in
hostage negotiations for the 1984 Los Angeles Games and worked
with several Atlanta corporate sponsors and advised ACOG on
security for its own headquarters. Beatty says that a week
before the Games, "I did notice that it was wide open for
terrorism. In the venues they chose security as the most
important thing; at Centennial Park they chose access. Those two
things are diametrically opposed. Open access means poor
security." That such access was allowed is questionable at best,
though Payne denies he was warned that the park was a security

Court records reveal that the last time a Summer Games was held
in the U.S., in L.A. in 1984, a right-wing "Aryan" paramilitary
group called the Order made elaborate plans to bomb several
Olympic sites. When members of the group were arrested that
year, several like-minded militias vowed to continue what they
saw as the Order's "unfinished business," though no incidents
related to that threat were reported. Last April federal agents
near Macon, Ga., arrested two members of the Georgia Republic
Militia with bomb-making materials in their possession. It was
widely reported at the time that the group was planning a "war"
on the '96 Olympics, though authorities denied it.

"I think I prepared myself more because of the threats that had
been coming in," says Atlanta native Gwen Torrence, a bronze
medalist in last Saturday's 100-meter dash. "I just asked God to
watch over me and my family." And Torrence didn't even know
that--according to Brown, the security consultant--an unarmed
pipe bomb had been found in Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital 10 days
before the Games began.

"It sent everyone's worries soaring," Brown says. "It ended up
not being a [live] bomb, but it was placed there by someone to
scare everyone."

And that, in a flash, has become the legacy of these Games:
fear. Surely that is what the presumed murderer intended last
Saturday when he dialed 911 and left this brief message: "There
is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes." After the
blast, as many as 10 U.S. athletes living outside the Athletes'
Village requested--and received--permission to move into the
compound. New Zealand boxer Garth Da Silva, who was showered by
glass from a broken window at the AT&T Village when the bomb
went off, says, "I can't relax enough. There is a wariness."
More telling, though, was the reaction of the public, which
revealed a new skittishness about unclaimed bags, packs, even
thermoses. In one sense Atlanta is the reverse of Munich, where
it was the Athletes' Village that was vulnerable. At the '96
Games, as Walker says, "the safest place you can be now is in
the Village or at a venue."

Terrorists understand that. Much as hijackings transformed air
travel, what happened in Atlanta on the morning of July 27 seems
destined to transform the nature of large public gatherings in
the U.S. Already Atlanta organizers have been forced to
compromise: Centennial Park was scheduled to reopen on Tuesday,
but with doubled security, increased surveillance, and bag
searches. Organizers for Sydney 2000 are discussing the idea of
enclosing the entire Summer Games site within a fence, open to
no cars, no unsearched crowds. But even that wouldn't be enough.
"People can tie bombs to themselves and walk into a place and
blow themselves up," Walker says. "I don't care what Sydney
does. You can't secure a whole city."

Nor, once the fear is unleashed, can people ever again feel
secure. That was made clear early Sunday morning, 23 hours after
the bomb blew in Centennial Park. Just a few blocks away the
entire population of a Days Inn was awakened and evacuated.
Another bomb threat. People clustered on the corner opposite the
hotel, waiting. Cop radios squawked, lights flashed. A couple
from Belgium, attending their first Olympics, tried to make the
best of it. "The first day here, it was like a big
family--everybody mixed together," said Marc Verstraeten. "But
since yesterday we don't find the Olympic spirit anymore. It's
gone. It's a real pity."

Verstraeten is an architect. "Hospitals and sports stadiums are
my specialty," he said, and then he realized how that sounds
now. He held up his hands and grinned in dismay, the right man
in the right town at the right time. After a while the police
began waving the crowd inside, and the hotel guests shuffled
back--all the vacationers and journalists, all the fans and
friends who had come to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games.

COLOR PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON TRACKS OF TERROR The morning after the explosion, blood covered some of the park's commemorative bricks, which are inscribed with the names of individual Olympic sponsors. [Blood and debris on bricks in Olympic Centennial Park]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO THE BOMB SITE After the park had been evacuated, emergency vehicles converged near the sound-and-light tower, where explosives were planted. [Olympic Centennial Park and Global Olympic Village with bomb site circled]

COLOR PHOTO: JULIAN GONZALEZ/BLACK STAR THE VICTIMS Medics rushed many of the 113 casualties to local hospitals. [Wounded man on stretcher being loaded into ambulance]

COLOR PHOTO: JENNIFER ABELSON SHOCK Gaiety quickly turned to grief. [Two women holding hands to faces]

COLOR PHOTO: ERIC RISBERG/AP HOMAGE Cyclists paused to honor victims.