Jun. 1, 2003: The Olympic Park Bombing Remembered

Isn’t it poetic justice that Eric Rudolph was discovered last week neck deep in a garbage pile? Garbage in, garbage out. Rudolph is the prime suspect in the July 27, 1996, Olympic Park bombing that killed one person, wounded more than a hundred and almost ruined a great peacetime event – the Centennial Olympic Games. He is also a suspect in several other bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham that killed one and hurt another dozen. And for what? I assume to make some narrow-minded dim-witted point not worth making in the first place.

At the time of the bombing, I was managing director for communications and government relations for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The Arab terrorist attacks on New York and Washington five years later make the park bombing look like small potatoes, but that day was as much hell as I ever want to experience.

It seemed incomprehensible then and it does today that some people want to hurt other people just to make a “statement.” When the park bombing occurred, innocent people were simply enjoying the festivities in the park. Despite all the criticisms, the Olympic Games are about celebrating the good that is within us and putting the bad on hold for a moment or two. It didn’t work that July morning. Not that we hadn’t planned on some nut case doing something appalling, but as we have since learned, you can’t monitor every person every hour of every day without turning the whole country into a police state.

The bombing took a lot out of me. My friend and counselor, Dr. Harry Cheves, told me that over time, I would look back on my Olympic experience and remember the good times (of which there were many) and block out the bad (such as the park bombing). I have managed to do that by immersing myself in a new career as your weekly curmudgeon, writing a couple of books – including one on the 1996 Games – and enjoying the life and times of four hugely wonderful grandsons. The announcement that Rudolph had been caught foraging for his breakfast at the local dumpster was a jolt akin to sticking a fork in an electrical outlet, and it brought that painful day back into sharp focus.

I remember the calm demeanor of ACOG’s CEO Billy Payne as we rode up the elevator together to our offices in those first moments after the bombing, trying to comprehend what had happened and what to do next. I have always admired Billy – still do – but never more than watching him quietly inspire his shell-shocked troops during what had to be a horrible personal moment for him. I’ve never witnessed better leadership in my forty-year career.

I remember FBI agent Woody Johnson, a good and able man, trying to do his job amid the chaos and confusion while dealing with his micromanaging bosses in Washington. I still think if everybody had left Woody alone, he would have found Rudolph a long time ago.

I remember the frenzied media mob that exhibited the worst of the profession. Reporters seemed more interested in scooping each other than in getting their facts straight. One of the early victims of their sloppy work was security guard, Richard Jewell. Jewell was considered a hero for helping evacuate the park just before the bomb went off, but then the media wolves turned on him. He was later cleared, but the damage to Jewell’s reputation by the media was unconscionable and uncalled for.

I remember a wonderful group of ACOG colleagues who were running on empty when the bombing occurred and simply turned it up another notch. How they did it, I don’t know. They are all heroes to me.

I remember wondering if anyone – athletes, volunteers, fans – would show up at the park or the venues when they heard the news about the bombing. Everybody came back in force. It was like the world was making a statement that they were not going to be cowed by terrorists. Seven years later, I have decided terrorists are too stupid to understand that they will never win. Never.

And yes, I remember the morning of July 27, 1996. It still hurts.