Dreaded Purple Master

Fun and the Games

Five Rings to rule them all and in the traffic bind them

So, you're doubtless panting to know how I and mine were affected by the Second Coming, er, I mean, the 1996 Olympic Games.

As long as we were driving to wherever we needed to go, we were fine. We weren't headed to any venues, so we weren't affected by the traffic. My commute to work was like a Sunday afternoon drive.

My wife, who braved the perils of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, was a little less fortunate. Since MARTA was the Official Spectator Transportation System of the Atlanta Games, their large international captive audience (three times their normal daily ridership) made it profitable to ignore the needs of their regular customers. Still, she got where she needed to go, eventually.

In general, the citizens of Atlanta were braced for an extremely unpleasant two weeks, battered by draconian traffic plans and travel restrictions, surrounded by sporting events we had no tickets for. I saw the torch; I wasn't impressed. Had it been carried by the traditional runner, it might have been different. Somehow, waiting for an hour after the scheduled arrival time to see it roll up in the lap of the grinning occupant of a motorized wheelchair, somehow that took the edge off for me. How wonderful for her, I thought sarcastically. (I've reached the point where if I'm going to be a bit player in somebody else's Big Scene, it needs to be more fun than this was.)

(Insensitive? Maybe. I'm also having trouble reconciling my gut reaction to the Paralympics to my naturally kind and giving disposition. I mean, I know plenty of something-impaired people, and I don't wish to be unkind to them. But think about the statement it makes when you light your torch at the eternal flame of that well-known champion of disabled rights, Dr Martin Luther King (!?!) -- then fly the flame to Washington DC (perhaps the mentally impaired feel more at home there?) and run (roll, hop, and limp) back to Atlanta, back to within a mile from its starting point. A triumph of symbolism over sense. Except that what it says to me is that it is more important to be seen Conquering the Odds than to actually do something meaningful. But is it really all that different from the winding path the Olympic torch took? Maybe I think about these things too much.)

But something remarkable happened during the Opening Ceremonies. Atlanta began to have fun. We began to realize that for the next two weeks, it was okay to be proud of being Southern, okay to be proud of a city that could put together a show of this magnitude. We are who we are; our history is uniquely ours, and not a thing of shame. The chrome pick-up trucks were just the right touch of self-mockery. (We Southerners are good at that.) Some thought the gigantic puppet minstrels were tasteless; I thought they were wonderful.

We learned that the Olympics would not, in fact, paralyze the city the way we had feared it would. This too shall pass, and in the meantime, let's have some fun. Yes, in a lot of ways the city turned into a giant flea market, and the IOC was offended by that. Hey, they knew Atlanta was in America when they voted for us: If they wanted an Old World Olympics, well, Athens, Greece was bidding too.

Our Olympic memory happened on a weekend afternoon at the Lindbergh Plaza Kmart. Oreta and I had taken the kids there to get Sarah (our oldest, 8) a new swimming suit, and as we were leaving the store, Sarah saw a small group of young adults in athletic gear blazoned with the colors and name of Australia. Sarah had studied Australia in school, and she remembered most of what she learned, so she loves Australia. It's probably her second favorite foreign country, after Japan.

She immediately started jumping up and down and pointing, with a wordless "Uh...uh...uh." So excited was she that words failed her. She wanted to go talk to them. We couldn't say no. With our permission, she went tearing off across the parking lot as fast as she could safely (bless her) travel, unable to gain any ground but determined not to lose any. Oreta followed close behind, to shout a warning in case Sarah got careless. I had intended to stay at the van with Naaman (son, 5), but his outrage at the very idea that Sarah was going somewhere he wasn't changed my mind, so we followed somewhat more sedately.

Sarah finally caught up with them in a clothing store. And then promptly hid behind a rack, too shy to approach them after all. She was still there when Naaman and I caught up. With some encouragement from us, she finally walked up to them and asked, "Are you really from Australia?"

"Yes", the young man replied in a slight but noticeable accent, "we are."

At this point Sarah's language skills failed her again. It never occurred to her to ask if they were actually athletes, and if so in what sport. Oreta explained Sarah's excitement and her studies. The young man asked, "D'you know how we say hello in Australia?" If she ever knew, the answer failed her.

Her next coherent words were to ask for an autograph. Of course, neither she nor they had either pen or paper...

After the briefest of pauses, they took pity on her and gave her one of what has become the international currency of the modern Olympics; a cloisonne pin. And again she lapsed into thrilled speechlessness.

Atlanta was just about ready to kick back and really let loose. Then, Friday night, July 26, the party came crashing down.

It wasn't that big a bomb, really. It could have been, but two-thirds of it failed to blow. It could easily have been mistaken for a transformer blowing, if you weren't in the park at the time. (Nobody I know was.) These days, the media are reporting that the blast killed two people. This is not true, and you should not let them get away with saying so. The blast killed ONE person, an Atlanta area native. A second person, a Turkish television reporter, died of a heart attack rushing to cover the story.

And a city, and a whole world, sobered.

I can't speak for anybody else's reactions; I can only speak for mine. I was, and am, furious. It requires no skill to injure or kill random people in the midst of such a crowd. It makes no political statement. There are ideas in this world worth killing and dying for. It cheapens them all to set off a bomb in the middle of a theme park. I fail to see whose ideology was advanced by this cowardly act of vandalism. What was the point? Dozens of people are injured, two dead, and for what?

I am not overcome by an emotional wave of "Not In My City!" Part of being the "Next Great International City", as our municipal letterhead proclaims us, is being an international target. It comes with the territory. (Attention is attention, and one must take the bad with the good.) However, I am angry at the current state of the Atlanta Police Department, whose police chief is woefully underqualified to direct traffic (having enjoyed her first such duty, symbolically, at these same Olympics), let alone "handle" a city in the grip of a Freaknik... or an Olympics. As later events have shown, a 911 warning was received by the Atlanta Police about a half hour before the bomb blast. The dispatcher wasted about fifteen minutes before sending anyone to investigate because she didn't have a street address for the park. How odd that the only people in the world who don't know where Centennial Olympic Park is should be the Atlanta police.

I'm furious at the media who insist on referring to the bombing as an act of "terrorism", surely the emptiest of words when the vermin responsible are unknown. I'm furious, in particular, at the news anchors for WXIA, the local NBC-TV affiliate, who chose to interview each other to illustrate the inhumanity of this incident. "We will get through this", the female anchor tearfully asserted at the end of the newscast, blowing any pretense at objectivity.

(Okay, I'll give her the right to get upset. She was there when the bomb blew, just finishing up a broadcast. Had it exploded with its full force, she would probably have been killed; the broadcast booths weren't far from the blast site. She has a right to be upset. She also has an obligation to remove herself from the story she is covering. If she can't do that, it is the station manager's job to replace her with someone who can. There was no shortage of potential anchors; Atlanta was hip-deep in reporters. She should have been given a day or two off to compose herself. Perhaps my standards are warped.)

I'm furious that no one seems to have responded to this emergency with the professionalism it demands. The agency coming the closest, after the hospitals, appear to have been the FBI; But even they have fallen into the trap of "leaking" the identity of an "unofficial suspect" and letting the media do their research for them. Richard Jewell, if innocent, should come away from this owning NBC and the Atlanta Journal- Constitution. Somehow I doubt that will happen.

The park reopened a few days later, but the atmosphere wasn't the same. Atlanta felt compelled to be there, determined to "take back the Park", as the news anchors like to call it.

A group of us braved the Friday night crowd on Aug 2 to see Centennial Olympic Park. I have to say it is a tremendous improvement on the warehouse gulch and public housing tract it replaced. There were too many people there to really enjoy the place: Another group of friends, whom were reportedly in the vicinity at the time and whom we had intended to meet there, never actually made it into the park, where the crowds were slightly thinner. The crowds inside were not raucous; those people were easily discouraged by the security lines at the gates, and milled about on the surrounding streets. (Liquor was not allowed on the Park grounds.) Inside, it was somewhat more solemn; Quiet desperation masquerading as a party.

And then some nameless MC took the stage to introduce the US Women's Gymnastics team, or at least some of them. Dominique Moceanu. Dominique Dawes. Kerri Strub. The projection TV screens made the venue seem more intimate than it was; it was easy to fall into the illusion that they were right over there, and the circus I'd been watching on TV became real...

And in the few seconds I stood dazed by the physical presence of these incredible young women, I lost the rest of our party. But my son (sitting on my shoulders) helped me find them again.

Afterthought: I've visited Centennial Olympic Park several times since the Olympics. Atlanta is host to numerous computer industry trade shows, and I attend as many as I am able.

And when I do, at around 12:30 pm, I get a bag lunch, stroll out to the Olympic fountains, and enjoy the show.

I'm struck by the accessibility of the place, the street-level ambiance of it. The fountains are not protected by a fence, or a curb, or a reflecting pool, but are embedded in the sidewalk. Anybody can walk up to, into, and through the showers. And many do.

I get the feeling that the Europeans who dominate the International Olympic Committee want to keep the ivory-tower atmosphere of the Olympics, but how typical of the American democratic state of mind that this purest, most enduring symbol of the Games and the hopes they represent... is flat, on the ground under the feet of countless world citizens, available for our children to play in.

: Saturday, August 31, 1996