A phone call at 1:30 a.m. always startles, but then came the chill of one simple statement from a colleague — “Turn on the TV” — followed by the jarring growl of the dial tone.
That’s how the news of the Olympic Centennial Park bombing came to me on July 27, 1996, sitting up late at a hotel room 10 miles from downtown Atlanta and typing away on a column about some entirely forgettable sports topic.
In the days to come we asked questions of athletes and officials and spectators and even of each other, trying to figure out the proper way to respond. The answers seemed always to be the same.
Keep going. Continue the Olympics, which at the moment were only halfway through their scheduled two-week run. Let law enforcement do its job, recognizing and accepting whatever increased security protocols were deemed necessary. Find the new normal and make it work, because the alternatives of panic and capitulation were not even on the table.
Watching from afar, the city of Boston seems committed to the same approach in response to Monday’s bombings near the finish line of the marathon. It’s a matter of standing your ground and doing it together, which is as close as America is ever going to come to ganging up on the twisted few who imagine that turning a sporting event or a concert or a midnight movie into a killing field will change the world into something more to their liking.
What did the Atlanta Olympics experience teach me?
For openers, don’t seek or expect the comfort of swift solutions. Police focused on the wrong guy for the longest time in 1996. The real Olympic Park bomber wasn’t identified as a suspect until five years after the attack and he wasn’t arrested until 2003, seven years later. By then, three different Olympic Games had been staged in Japan and Australia and Utah, with metal detectors as the gateway to every event. Senses sharpen, people adjust, and that’s the only real pattern you can trust.
Also, major sports events might seem a natural target for terrorism, but it’s still probably safer on the inside than on the periphery.
The Atlanta attack didn’t happen at the Athletes’ Village or at the stadium or in the Main Press Center. That massive pipe bomb, which killed one woman and injured 111 others, was placed under a bench sometime after midnight near a stage where a band, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, was giving a free concert. It was a weak spot in the overall security sweep, and that’s why it, presumably like the bomb site near the Boston Marathon competition course, was chosen.
Another lesson is to leave the profiling to the professionals. The Olympic Park bomber was not an international terrorist. Turns out the guy was born in Merritt Island.
Last, the fans who poured into the Olympic arenas for that second week of competition in 1996 weren’t the least bit prone to flinch. They cheered just as loudly as before, they haggled just as vigorously with strangers in the street over scalped tickets and, when each day’s competition was concluded, they crammed onto the MARTA subway trains and city buses rather than forming long lines for a more exclusive and controlled cab ride to their various homes and hotels.
That’s the way we want it to be, minus the intimidation if not always the fear, and that’s how it will be on Boston’s Boylston Street once the crime scene is cleared, mirroring New York City after 9/11.
It’s not that much of a reach predicting that more people than ever will apply to run in the Boston Marathon next year. Some will be starting fresh and others will be trying to complete Monday’s mission if they were among the hundreds of racers forced to turn and run away from the finish line.
Twenty-six miles plus 385 yards is a long way, but they’ll push themselves to go little bit more now, through a dark tunnel of confusion and sorrow and out the other side.