Blast Quiets But Can't Silence Spirit Of Olympics
ATLANTA — Flags are flying at half staff, security has been heightened, and somber seconds of silence are now observed before each Olympic event. The weekend bomb blast has cast a deep shadow over Atlanta's Centennial Games, but visitors, athletes, and residents seem determined it will not stamp out the Olympic spirit.
That determination is evident here as venues continue to fill up with cheering spectators, volunteers faithfully staff events, and crowds line streets looking for food and music.
Still, the tragedy brings home a hard reality with which other free nations have long grappled: the difficulty of ensuring public safety in an era when any anonymous malcontent can fashion and explode a bomb. The city of Atlanta and Olympic organizers had assembled a $300 million security effort involving thousands of federal, state, and local agents, and their self-promotional confidence has been a casualty of Saturday morning's explosion.
"What happened ... will stay with all of us for the rest of our lives," says Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. "But we're going to bounce back and ... confirm to the world that the selection of Atlanta was the right choice for the Centennial Olympic Games."
Optimism is bridled
The question remains as to what mark - if any - the bombing may leave on the city that is hosting the largest peacetime event in the world. Modern-day Atlanta is a city prone to self-promotion, brimming over with unbridled optimism. But now the tone here is more tempered, as spectators and athletes alike await long security checks to get past metal detectors and armed guards.
Investigators are calling the homemade pipe bomb, which exploded in Centennial Olympic Park early Saturday morning, a terrorist act. The explosion killed one and injured 111. A second person also died after rushing to the scene. Most people have been treated and released.
Federal agents are trying to identify a mysterious 911 caller who warned of an explosion in half an hour. But just 18 minutes later, as police inspected a suspicious bag and cleared part of the area, the bomb went off.
The blast, which comes eight days after the downing of TWA Flight 800, continues to keep world attention riveted on terrorism. Two months ago, 19 US personnel died after a bomb blew up barracks in Saudi Arabia. Fifteen months ago, Oklahoma City was the target, and before that, the World Trade Center in New York.
President Clinton, who had returned from an Olympic visit just 24 hours before the blast, pledged that "we will track them down. We will bring them to justice."
In Atlanta, the largest security force in a peacetime event is assembled to help guard athletes and spectators. Although sports venues have been closely watched, Centennial Park - the main gathering place for spectators and citizens - was deliberately left open in an effort to enable people to walk freely and enjoy the area. The park is now a crime scene but is expected to reopen soon.
City and Olympic officials say the impact from the blast could have been much worse. At the time, the park was still crowded. Many visitors were listening to a concert and milling around the area. Officials credit several policemen with preventing greater injury or loss of life because they spotted the package and started to clear the area.
The bombing has put security forces on a higher alert. On Saturday and Sunday, spectators endured longer waits in lines to pass through metal detectors and bag inspections, although Olympic organizers insist it is because of the greater numbers of visitors. MARTA, the city's transportation system, instituted more aggressive searches of people and packages.
Officials said that in the first week of the Games security personnel had logged scores of threats and false alarms. They had also investigated about 120 abandoned or suspicious parcels that, until Saturday, were all proved harmless.
But many experts say that while security measures can be made even tighter, little can be done to police every part of the city. That, they add, is a harsh reality the American public must learn to deal with in the face of increasing terrorism.
"You balance off access against security," said Jeffrey Beatty, an internationally recognized security expert and chief executive officer of Total Security Services.
Many spectators seem to understand the risks.
"We celebrate freedom here," says Eleanor Pemberton of Conyers, Ga., a spectator at a women's basketball contest Saturday. "Sometimes it has a price. I'm not worried."
"We need to stand tall. This could have happened anywhere in America," former Mayor Maynard Jackson said Saturday. "This is a convenient place for someone to do something as awful and tragic as this."
The show must go on
Many say the International Olympic Committee's decision to continue the Games was the right one. "You don't want the bad guys to win," says Micki King, the team leader for the US divers and a diver during the 1972 Munich Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes and seven officials were killed. After that attack, the first terrorist act at the Olympics, the Games went on, too.
Voices of the athletes
If Olympic organizers and security personnel are grim-faced in the wake of the bombing, many of the athletes seem outright defiant.
"I think they should ... execute him publicly if they catch him," said an angry Andre Agassi, the most flamboyant of the players on the international tennis circuit.
To Gail Devers, who won the gold in the 100-meter sprint Saturday, 'the bomb stood for destroying the Olympic spirit." She said: "It's time for me to be joyous over what I did, but it's also time for sadness."
"To let whoever did this get away with this and cancel the Games, that would be absurd," said US basketball star Charles Barkley.
"If you come in and you're afraid, always looking behind you, you're taking this wonderful thing and made it a negative experience," Ms. King says. "I remember what the German people did to put on a great Olympics and how their bubble was burst as well, and I think the people of Atlanta will overcome this. The warmth, hospitality, and spirit that was here will be restored in our memory if we look back on it years from now."
* Staff writer Ross Atkin contributed to this report.