Michael Rogin

  • Imagineering Atlanta by Charles Rutheiser
    Verso, 324 pp, £44.95, July 1996, ISBN 1 85984 800 1

‘AT&T Welcomes the World,’ announced the giant sign above the Global Olympic Village at Olympic Centennial Park. Although international corporations had built the park to call attention to themselves, ‘sponsor footprints’ like the AT&T tower ‘were not just advertisements’, explained Billy Payne, chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games: they showcased ‘state-of-the-art technology’ that ‘people will be seeing for the first time’. The Coca-Cola Corporation built its Olympic City entertainment centre at the northern edge of the park. CNN headquarters – the property value of which increased by 26 percent with the building of the park – lay just to the south-west. On 27 July, film footage carried by CNN displayed first the AT&T Welcome to the World, then beneath it the flash of a bomb.

Worried because there was public access to Olympic Centennial Park, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) built a fence ‘to control the crowds and keep out the riffraff’. The head of Olympic Security warned that neither aggressive panhandling by the homeless nor the ‘terroristic behaviour’ of unruly teenagers would be tolerated. Because the park was open to the public it was not a ‘secure space’, as the director of the Atlanta FBI explained at the first post-bomb press conference. But the man first suspected of planting the bomb was neither one of the homeless riffraff who used to congregate in the ‘Badlands’, the site of the park, nor was he an international terrorist. A twice-fired former sheriff and university security officer, he worked for AT&T’s security service. Like the other guards protecting Olympic Centennial Park, he was hired at the minimum wage. The bomb fragments found at his home, however, may only have been payment in kind, souvenirs of the explosion rather than evidence pointing to its perpetrator. In this privately-sponsored Olympic Games that wore the face of American nationalism, did the global Olympic village have an enemy guarding its gates or merely another voyeur?

It was difficult not to see the bombing as retribution for the extraordinary self-promotion that brought the Olympics to Atlanta and, to the consternation even of American journalists, dominated the competition. In violation of Olympic protocol, only the US National Anthem was sung to open the games. Only Americans – Dennis Mitchell after winning a 100-metres heat and Michael Johnson after taking the 200-metre gold – puffed out their chests and pulled their jerseys to display the national emblem. Only Americans accused an Irish swimmer of using drugs when she won the Olympic gold. Only an eliminated American boxer, Fernando Vargas, would not have lost but for a ‘cheating’ referee, ‘since the United States is the best country in the world’. Crowds were no better, drowning out the music for a Belorussian gymnast’s routine with chants of ‘USA’, leaving the stadium after the last American was knocked out of the pole vault finals, shifting between ‘indifference and hysteria’, in the words of Le Monde, depending on whether American athletes were on stage. ‘Never before in the history of the Olympic Games has the spirit of the people equalled the talent of the athletes,’ Billy Payne said at the closing ceremony.

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