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Tensions linger but Games will go on

Published Sep. 16, 2005

In the gloom of the morning after, there was an unhealthy glow to the Olympic flame. Framed between a sky as dark as the mood and the ground as dampened as the enthusiasm, the fire burned only in patches around the rim. A steady drizzle poured into the cauldron, and for the first time, the flame seemed neither bright nor warm.

Somehow, however, it managed to keep its spark. Somehow, it managed to struggle on.

Somehow, beneath it, athletes managed to do the same thing.

They went on with the Olympics Saturday. What else could they do? Whether it says good things or bad about the athletes entered in these Games, they managed to shut out a terrorist bombing, to maintain focus, to continue with their competitions.

No, it was not the same. A pipe bomb ripped a hole in these Games and drained much of the idealism from the Olympics in the early morning Saturday, and suddenly, much of the joy of watching men and women run and jump and celebrate was gone. They felt it, too, the fear mixed in with the outrage, with the unbelievable feeling of violation.

Yet, they went on. What else could they do?

"You can't shut this down," said Kevin McMahon, a hammer thrower. "If you shut it down, you're letting fear and hate have their way."

And so the Games will continue. There are those who would shut them down, who would point out how trivial they are now that people are dead, now that the global peace that is the Olympics has been broken. In the face of people lying on the ground, bleeding, the Games seem almost trivial.

"This is like someone coming into your house and stealing something," said Jearl Miles, a Gainesville runner who will compete in the women's 400-meter race. "You walk past a knapsack, and you wonder if there is a bomb inside. It's a little frightening."

They feel it, too. After all, the athletes of these Games are the ultimate target, are they not? But if you are an Olympian, you gather your concentration, and you go on the best you can. You acknowledge the pain, and then you try your best to push it from your mind.

"I don't know if people understand that," said David Lovejoy, another hammer thrower. "I don't want to trivialize this, but you have to block it out. You have to take care of your business."

First, however, they must adjust. There is a new tension to these Games. You can sense it as you talk to athletes. There were those who shrugged off the explosion of a TWA flight off Long Island on July 17. But a pipe bomb in Centennial Olympic Park, where the friends and families have gathered, cannot be ignored.

The last time Lovejoy was in this stadium, it was for the Opening Ceremonies. He talked about that Saturday, about the energy and the national pride and the faces of the athletes of the world. Now, he said, "there is a shroud over it all. Terrorism is no longer a foreign mask."

He shook his head. "For people who are crazy enough to do something like this, I guess this is a natural target. Every Olympics, people worry about it. We're just lucky nothing like this has happened at a Super Bowl. I know they were worried in Arizona because of what happened in Oklahoma City. But if you stop the Games, you're going to have the same kinds of things happen every Olympics. Because it's what they want."

Lovejoy found out about the bomb when he was warming up Saturday morning. McMahon learned of it when he turned on his pager to check the time. It was 6:42 a.m., he said. He remembers it clearly. Members of the British track team knew something was up when the lights came on at 4 a.m. so the team leader could search their rooms. Panic had hit the Games.

In Plant City, a telephone rang just before 2 a.m. As Rachel Bennett answered it, she thought she knew what the discussion was going to be about. Brooke, the gold-medalist, her daughter, had been arguing that she wanted a later curfew to stay out with the older swimmers. Rachel had relented, but the paperwork she had to sign had not been completed.

"Brooke, I don't want to discuss the curfew any more," Rachel said.

There was a pause. "Mom, I'm not calling about that," Brooke said. "Something has happened."

Bennett and her teammates had been in Centennial Olympic Park until late. She had stayed away from the party atmosphere until after her event, but now she thought it was time to get into the crowds. Fortunately, she had left the park before the incident.

"I want her to come home," Rachel said. "She wants to stay. I don't think it scares her the way it scares me."

A mother worries. When Rachel went to the Aquatic Center one day, she took Brooke a backpack full of clothes. The security guards glanced at them, did nothing more. "I could have had anything in there," she said.

For American athletes, this is a realization late in coming. They are so protected, so safe. But a nut with a bomb can get to a lot of places.

"Man, it's scary," said boxer Nate Jones. "I'm thinking about not going to see the president when the Olympics are over. I'm going to do something else. They might decide to try to hit D.C. It's scary. Everyone is supposed to be at peace here. This is supposed to be the safest country in the world. The whole world is having a good time.

"I'm not going outside anymore. I'm going to wait until this is over."

The Olympics, however, will not wait. The Games had only minimal delays Saturday. Before long, athletes were talking again about split times and medals and performances. For years, they have been conditioned to think only about this. Again, it is what they do.

But there is tarnish on the gold now. The Games seem like games. And there is a new way to remember Atlanta.

"I was thinking about that," Lovejoy said. "I hope this isn't the way these Olympics are remembered, but what do you remember about Munich? The terrorism. I'm sure it will be the same thing here. It's a shame. It's like rain on your wedding day."

Lovejoy stopped. He looked at his feet.

"Actually," he said. "It's a lot worse than that."