As the world watches how organizers of the 2020 Olympic Games handle the global pandemic, I empathize, and also believe the Games should go on. According to recent reporting by NPR and others, many Japanese disagree.
There’s a long history of the Games continuing through horrific terrorism, and only canceling during world war. I’m reminded of the disaster I experienced firsthand during the 1996 Olympic Games.
I was in the park after midnight on July 27, 1996, when Eric Rudolph’s backpack bomb exploded. It’d been less than an hour since I left my shift as a media relations staffer in the “war room” of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). I was still in uniform.
I had moved to Georgia’s capital with starry eyes, ones that teared up at Olympic commercials. Like all Atlantans, I had waited long, planned toward the deadline and hoped for good weather.
The air was thick that night, and hotter than we’d promised for summer in the Deep South. My boyfriend, now-husband Jamey, and I were listening to music in a parking lot adjacent to both the Olympic offices at the Atlanta Inforum and the main stage of Centennial Park.
It was the 100th anniversary of the Olympics. The South I loved was welcoming the world’s biggest unified celebration. Atlanta was thriving. Volunteers were showing up for their shifts. Reporters from around the world liked us, our food and our friendly disposition. Records were being set and the U.S was on its way to winning the most gold medals.
An enormous pop broke the sultry air and the ground reverberated. A few people looked up in the air for fireworks. I sensed calamity.
No one ran. Some looked around for indications of calm or panic. I grabbed Jamey and pulled him up the hill toward the committee headquarters. As we climbed, dozens of reporters — predominantly men — ran downhill in our direction. The sea of news people rushing toward us, coupled with the fear of their questions about how we, the organizers, had let something terrible happen, made me want to hide. Many wore pocketed vests. Others lugged heavy equipment. There were several with cell phones, rare for the time.
I’ll never understand why the guard let Jamey into the building with me at the flash of my badge. We rode the elevator to the top floor. I was shaking as I badged us into the low-lit conference room where Olympic staffers worked urgently to get information on the bombing, all eyes on the small TV sets along a single wall. The Internet was a fledgling being. TV news was king.
My sole tool was a multi-line telephone, and I dialed each person on the communications emergency list to wake them. One directed me to call CNN and tell them to stop reporting a death toll when there was no proof of one. I was so shell-shocked and green I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to doubt CNN, or the guts to make a call warning them to verify their sources, without her missive. The world’s eyes were on our Games, and I did what I was told.
Buoyed by the idea of helping, we scanned the TV’s for more information. A male voice from behind us announced President Clinton was on the phone. We listened as the man updated the President with what little information we had. Moments later, an Atlanta police officer and an Olympic security guard blocked our view of the monitors and instructed Jamey to leave. There was a bomb threat on our very room.
Jamey walked out unescorted as I worried about how he’d get home. I felt safe in my spot and valuable to the media center team. I was likely neither.
In the aftermath, we learned that dozens of people were injured, and a Georgia woman had died from the explosion, along with a cameraman who’d suffered a heart attack in the race to the scene. Yet under the dark cloud of the nightmare created by an evil schemer, the athletes went on to compete the very next day. The Olympic spirit would push through.
And that’s what kept us going through to the closing ceremony. The athletes and a global love of sport. Local and federal teams continued security operations so everyone else could witness athletic feats and celebrate the sacrifice and generosity of the families, sponsors and volunteers who dared to help such dreams come true. We were cheering on the athletes and each other in the face of real threat.
As we look back 25 years and forward to Tokyo, I encourage all of us to give thanks to the security officers, reporters, behind-the-scenes workers and fans who work and uphold Olympic ideals despite great challenge. Like Olympians, we must keep going. I wish the people of Tokyo health, safety and good luck.
Pressley Peters is an award-winning writer with a background in philanthropy and marketing communications. She is a graduate of Rhodes College and lives in Dallas. You can find her at pressleypeters.com or on Twitter @pressleypeters.