4:21am

Sat July 30, 2011
Reporter's Notebook

Olympic Triumph Amid Tragedy At 1996 Games

It's been 15 years since the Summer Olympics were held in Atlanta. NPR's Kathy Lohr covered the games and remembers how the Olympic spirit rose above the tragic bombing.

For me, two events still stand out from that summer.

First, the opening ceremony, which I covered from Centennial Olympic Park, where the festivities were broadcast for free on huge TV screens. It was a big party, and I stayed in the park for hours recording the event.

Everyone was glued to the celebration, awed by each moment. Millions of people watched on TV, and thousands were at the park that sultry evening as Gladys Knight performed the classic, "Georgia on my Mind."

The celebration continued with the parade of athletes entering the arena. Finally, the Olympic torch, which had made its way through the neighborhoods, was carried into the stadium and passed to legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.

Ali's hands were shaking as he struggled to light the Olympic cauldron, and after a nervous moment or two for everyone, a ball of flame eked up a long cable and finally did ignite the cauldron.

The other event — a tragic one — took place about a week later, when a pipe bomb hidden inside a backpack exploded in Centennial Park during a free concert. The bomb was placed not far from where I had stood a few days earlier.

Two people died as a result of the explosion and hundreds were injured. Atlanta's Olympic organizers were horrified.

"The Olympic movement remains one of the bright hopes of the future," committee president Billy Payne said on NBC. "We cannot deviate from our mission, not withstanding the sorrow that we feel."

The games did go on, and spectators packed Olympic events the next day in defiance. Tourists also came back to Centennial Park when it reopened, a statement that no terrorist would win.

But it took more than five years for federal agents to catch Eric Rudolph, who had fled to North Carolina's mountains to hide out. Rudolph was finally identified as the man responsible for several bombings in the South, including the one intended to disrupt the 1996 games, but covering that manhunt is another story.

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