Background image: Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta where two people died during the Olympics as the result of a bomb explosion. The low, dark building in the background is the Atlanta Convention Center, which served as the main press center during the Games housing the bureaus and individual reporters' work spaces for newspapers and magazines worldwide.

1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics

 

Four years before the Atlanta Olympics I walked around the city of

Barcelona past alleyways where soldiers leaned against machine guns

and smoked in the shadow of their parked armored personnel carriers.

The terrorist incident for which they were stationed never occurred.

 

The morning after those Olympics, my wife and I boarded a train for

Paris, where we would vacation for a week. At the French border, the

train was halted so the wheels could be changed from the Spanish wide

gauge to the French standard gauge. Armed security forces wearing the

fascist insignia of long-dead Spanish dictator Francisco Franco boarded

the train and forcibly removed one of the passengers from our car.

 

Not in the United States, I thought. Not in Atlanta.

 

Atlanta felt too close to home to be an exotic, or even dangerous,

Olympic locale. It wasn't just that I spoke the local tongue. There were

Waffle Houses and Hardee’s, street signs I could understand, computer

keyboards with letters in familiar places

 

A couple of days before the opening ceremonies, after a day of

interviews at the new Olympic pool at Georgia Tech, I had dinner

downtown with some of my sports writer friends and then took a

MARTA Red Line train to the Dunwoody station, where the Mercury

News’ rental car was parked.

 

Even though it was dark on my drive the rest of the way to the paper's

rental house in Alpharetta, it was easy to spot the police cars parked off

the shoulder of the freeway. At my exit, I began navigating the tangled

network of backcountry roads the rest of the way. I passed one police

car headed in the opposite direction, then another.

 

At a T intersection somewhere in the boonies, I stopped for my right

turn. Suddenly I was surrounded by flashing blue lights and ordered

out of the car by a bullhorn voice. Through the spotlights that were

intended to blind me, it was apparent that there were at least a half-

dozen police there and some were pointing guns at my head.

 

As I spread-eagled against the side of the car, as ordered, to be frisked,

I either didn’t move fast enough or failed to get in the proper position

and was roughly rearranged. The trunk was searched, my laptop and

Olympic credential found, and I was handcuffed and shoved into the

back of one of the police cars.

 

The charges were driving 96 mph, eluding a police chase and resisting

arrest. At the jail in Roswell, where I was booked into a holding cell, I

asked the arresting officer why, if I had been driving like that, none of

the many police cars I had passed didn’t pull me.

 

“When we get to court, I’m going to testify that I clocked you at 96 mph,”

he said.

 

What were my chances in a courtroom with no witness to verify my

story and an accuser with a badge who testified every week in his

hometown before the same judge?

 

The bail bondsman arrived about 4 a.m., which cost $2,000 on my Visa

card, and I took a taxi back to the house. After sunrise I was able to get

the rental car, which had been impounded, for a few hundred more.

After a day or so of phone calls back to the newspaper, an editor agreed

that the paper would pick up the couple of thousand dollars for an

Atlanta lawyer, who eventually got the charges dropped.

 

I saw the rest of those Olympics through the eyes of a foreign visitor.

 

The “county fair” that set up downtown, the silver Chevy pickups in the

opening ceremonies and the angry white man bombing and murder at

the Olympic Park all powerfully reinforced to visitors from abroad like

me that Atlanta fit the hillbilly caricature painted by local comedian Jeff

Foxworthy.

 

“The Olympics in Georgia,” he said in his act. “God, you know we’re

gonna screw that up.”

 

 

Selected Stories

 

Hot, Hot, Hot. The Heat is on Atlanta to Keep Things Cool During the Games

ATLANTA – Millions of Southerners sweat through long Sunday sermons, five-hour stock car races and the summer overlap of American Legion baseball and high school football seasons with no more apparent effect than the melting away of final consonants.

 

But this summer's arrival of the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta has opened their sleepy ol' eyes to the fact they apparently endure one of the harshest climates on Planet Earth.

 

The world's greatest distance runner, Noureddine Morceli of Algeria - the largest nation of Saharan Africa - left the new Olympic Stadium after a track meet earlier this summer vowing to spend the rest of his pre-Olympic training in Florida so he could acclimate himself to the South's heat and humidity.

 

He had thought moving to New Mexico would be enough. …

 

A month before the Atlanta Olympics began I attended a press briefing there to gather string for preview stories. What struck me was a theme of people worrying about Southern heat and humidity. That’s the climate I grew up in. It didn’t seem like news to me, especially since I had covered Barcelona four years earlier and nearly melted in the humidity there. I remembered getting out of a shower and not being able to dry off with two towels. But the athletes who were complaining had been in hot places, too. I decided it was worth a story.

 

 

 

Athletes Cheered by Thought of Home Crowd

… Anticipating a preacher giving an invocation at tonight's opening ceremonies, Atlanta-born comic Jeff Foxworthy said, ''Lord, let us welcome the foreigners from other nations and prepare them for the butt-whuppin' they are about to receive.''

 

Even forgiving the reverend his Southern-fried patriotism, the U.S. Olympic team should benefit significantly from playing these Games on its own turf, mats, courts, pools and table tennis tables. …

 

Home field advantage is important in all sports. The fourth U.S. Olympics in my memory and the seventh in history was an easy subject for a preview story, but what made it more interesting for me was the way so many American athletes treasured an opportunity that most Olympians never get. Rules changes that permitted professionals meant many U.S. athletes who would have moved on to other lives after Barcelona could – and happily did – extend their sports participation to compete for once in their careers at home. It produced an enormous medal haul without an asterisk like the one caused by the boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.

 

 

 

Heart of Gold: Agony of Feat by Gymnast Strug Ensures Thrill of U.S. Victory

ATLANTA – Kerri Strug came to Atlanta for the gold medal. By the time she made her final vault, she did not know the United States already had earned the gold.

 

What she did know Tuesday night as she stood at the head of the runway looking at the vaulting horse was that her left ankle was in pain, that her first attempt had ended on her rear end, that both of teammate Dominique Moceanu's vaults before hers had gone splat as well, that she was the last U.S. competitor - that no country had ever defeated Russia or the Soviet Union in Olympic women's team gymnastics. …

 

Because a San Jose athlete – high school student Amy Chow – had been on the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team in the year leading up to Atlanta, I had gone to Boston to cover the Olympic trials and had gotten to know several of the athletes and coaches who would go to Atlanta. Amy was why I happened to pick the Georgia Dome as the place to be the night the women’s team gold medal was decided. I didn’t expect her to be the star but part of a historic story about possibly winning one of the most prominent Summer Olympic events. What occurred that night brought back memories of watching the 1976 Montreal Olympics on TV and seeing a Japanese gymnast compete on a broken leg to help his team win the men’s gold medal. It was of many times that Olympic television memories from my youth helped me write stories with deeper context than I otherwise could have done.

 

 

 

Historic Gold for U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, Tops China 2-1 Before 76,481

ATHENS, Ga. – For the low, low price of $53 you could have bought yourself a piece of women's sports history Thursday night.

 

That would have gotten you one of the cheap seats for the United States' 2-1 gold-medal victory over China - the first women's Olympic soccer medal - before 76,481 fans, the world's largest women's soccer crowd and the largest in the United States to see a women's sporting event. …

 

The growing acceptance of women as athletes was a big story even before the Atlanta Olympics, partly a consequence of the Nixon-era law called Title IX that required schools and colleges to provide equal educational opportunities – including sports – to girls and women. But Atlanta was the first Olympics to add women’s soccer, and because it had not proved itself as a television draw, NBC did not show the gold medal game in its telecast. Nevertheless, the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, where the Bulldogs’ football team played, drew a Bulldog-sized crowd to see women play a sport few Americans cared about otherwise. Three years later I would be covering women’s soccer again and football-sized crowds would be common. NBC cut to live interviews with the U.S. players immediately when the final score was announced, which delayed interviews by the written press like me and started pushing us toward our deadlines. However, a Bay Area member of the U.S. team made it a point to come to speak with me as soon as she was off camera, which helped me get my story in on time. Several years later, when Brandi Chastain had become a household name for scoring the winning goal in the Women’s World Cup, we were on the same women’s professional team – I as the public relations director. I introduced her as a speaker to the annual AWSM (Association of Women in Sports Media) Convention of women sports writers with that anecdote about her understanding of and cooperation with news media.

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© 2020 by Jody Meacham