Olympics no longer a safe oasis

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Matt Ghaffari sent his people packing. After a long night of sleeplessness and CNN, the American wrestler came to the sad conclusion that he could not be confident in the safety of the Summer Olympics.

He told his parents and his three brothers to head home for Cleveland, and then he went out to comfort the wounded.

''I want to go to the hospital and take my (silver) medal and some pins and make people happy,'' Ghaffari said Saturday. ''I can't tell you how sad I am. I'm ashamed as a person, as a human being.''

After 24 years as a constant, unseen threat, terror was again a tangible presence at the Olympics Saturday morning. What authorities described as an ''anti-personnel fragmentation device,'' - a pipe bomb - destroyed the serenity of Centennial Olympic Park about 1:25 a.m. One woman died from the wounds she sustained in the explosion, a Turkish cameraman suffered a fatal heart attack en route to the scene, and 111 bystanders were treated for related injuries.

The Games went on, of course. Too many people have too much invested - financially and emotionally - to pull the plug on this party. But the illusion that the Olympics are an oasis from the world's hostilities has been permanently shattered.

Because it was so random, Saturday's bombing was scarier even than the Munich massacre of 1972. Then, the Israeli team was targeted for the political purposes of Palestinian terrorists. This time, the target appears to have been tranquillity.

Organizers were eager to reassure athletes and spectators, but they were in no position to make guarantees. Canadian swimmer Guylaine Cloutier decided it was time to get out of Dodge. She heads home to Quebec today.

''You want to enjoy life and be part of the big party, but it's not a safe place to be,'' Ms. Cloutier said. ''Where are we going to go to have fun? They told us it would be safe to go downtown because it was so crowded. I guess they were wrong.''

By mid-morning Saturday, much of downtown Atlanta was behind barricades. Law enforcement officials shut down the Olympic Park and several of the surrounding streets, expanded the considerable presence of the National Guard, and turned what had been a carnival atmosphere into that of a police state.

At the corner of Spring and Baker, pedestrians paused behind the police line to peer at FBI agents searching for clues at a phone booth where a bomb threat had been traced a few minutes before the blast. Watching them work, a woman tucked an American flag under her arm in order to get a better grip on her video camera.

If some spectators were frightened of the scene, others were drawn to it. Organizers said attendance at the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium was between 95 percent and 100 percent of capacity for the morning track session, and a scalper reportedly was able to sell a $17 handball ticket for $75.

''It's a shame what happened, and my heart goes out to everyone, but I'm here to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games.'' American cyclist Marty Nothstein said. ''And no matter what, I don't think anything is going to stop me.''

''I don't think I'm in any danger,'' said Dave Heitz, Madeira High School class of 1978. ''I think the security at the venues is very tight. I think you're going to have as much security here as you would at any festival.''

How much security is enough? Depends on where you're standing. The athletes' village is an armed camp. The competition venues are closely monitored. But Atlanta's crowded public spaces - the Olympic Park, the rapid-transit stations - are comparatively exposed.

''Everyone always knew,'' President Clinton said Saturday, ''(the Olympic Park) was the most open and vulnerable place.''

''You have to put X-ray machines to every single, not just venue, but open area,'' said Dave Popejoy, a U.S. hammer thrower. ''Either we live in a police state or you take your chances.

''I don't know what's going on in this country. With everything that's going on, terrorism's no longer a foreign mask.''

At an event like the Olympics, no large public space can be assumed to be safe. Preparations must be made. When the Red Cross made its rounds Saturday morning, it distributed brochures titled: Helping Children Cope With Disaster. The pamphlets had been printed in both English and Spanish.

How's that for international understanding?

''The spirit of the Games is to promote humanity,'' Matt Ghaffari said. ''The spirit of the Games is tainted. I want to kick the guy's butt who did it.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 28, 1996.