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Atlanta bombing movie brings back memories of terror for Canadian Olympians who were there

Olympic champions Donovan Bailey and Marnie McBean are among scores of Canadians remembering the terror depicted in a new film about the bomb attack at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Donovan Bailey and Marnie McBean each won gold medals in the hours following the attack

In this July 28, 1996, file photo, security guard Richard Jewell poses across from the tower where he found a bomb and warned visitors at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. His misstated role in the attack is the subject of a new movie. (The Associated Press)

Donovan Bailey awoke on the morning of July 27, 1996 with two items on his personal to-do list.

The first was to set a world record in the men's 100-metre Olympic final. The second was to claim Olympic gold as the world's fastest man.

"My coach, Dan Pfaff, felt I was going to break the world record," says a reflective Bailey, now 52. "So the time really was not going to matter to me. I knew I was going to run faster than I had ever run before."

Initially, Bailey thought Pfaff was playing a mind game when he told him a bomb had exploded at 1:25 a.m. in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, the free concert zone with no metal detectors, no scanners and no controlled access 

Without another word, Pfaff left the room.

"That's just the relationship between Dan and myself," Bailey says. "Dan is always trying to test me."

WATCH |  News coverage of Atlanta 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing:

CBC News' Eric Sorensen reports on the infamous Centennial Olympic Park bombing on July 27, 1996 from Atlanta. 5:16

So Bailey sat down to eat his omelette, fresh fruit and toast, while sipping his English breakfast tea with milk and honey. The house manager flipped the television on and the mind game became real.

"I didn't know how many people had died," Bailey says of the carnage he saw on the screen. "I didn't know if they were going to cancel the Olympic Games. I didn't know what was happening."

That same morning, Marnie McBean woke up and saw a yellow Post-it note slipped under her door by her coach, Al Morrow.

Jewell was hounded by media after an erroneous report linked him to the bombing. Jewell died in 2007. (The Associated Press)
The note read: Last night, a bomb went off at Centennial Olympic Park. People were injured and/or killed. Expect security delays and/or cancellations. You might want to get an earlier bus.

"Personally, I had 30 family members come down to Atlanta," McBean says. "And my family, they're all precarious adventurers. People barely had cell phones, so I couldn't call them up and make sure everyone was okay.

"So we got on an earlier bus. We didn't know what was going on, and we're on the bus that's supposed to go to our Olympic final."

Bailey and McBean are among scores of Canadians who remember the terror depicted in the new Clint Eastwood movie, Richard Jewell. The film is based on the true story of Jewell, the Atlanta security guard wrongly suspected in the Centennial Park bombing.

Jewell likely saved many lives that night when he discovered an unattended backpack containing three pipe bombs during a rock concert attended by about 50,000 people. He helped clear the immediate area before a bomb exploded, killing a woman and injuring 111. (A Turkish television camera operator also died when he suffered a fatal heart attack as he rushed to the scene.)

I didn't know if they were going to cancel the Olympic Games. I didn't know what was happening.- Donovan Bailey, 1996 100-metre champion

Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell's life fell apart on July 30 when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran the headline: 'FBI suspects hero guard may have planted bomb'.

Though police never charged him, many people still thought Jewell — who died in 2007 from complications of diabetes — was responsible for the bombing. It wasn't until 1998 that authorities charged Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty to the bombings in 2005 and is serving a life sentence.

"I think most of us still had the feeling in Atlanta that Olympic security would keep everybody safe and sound and that nothing like this could happen," says Mark Lee, a broadcaster who worked the 1996 Games for CBC. "It was pre-9/11. You still thought with all the security, you would be safe."

After a long day of calling volleyball, Lee and commentator Charlie Parkinson arrived back at the International Broadcast Centre. In a scene familiar to every Olympics, they stood outside waiting for a bus that never came.

They managed to arrange a ride, and at around 1 a.m., less than half an hour before the bomb would explode, the pair found themselves about 100 metres from the sound tower at Centennial Olympic Park waiting to be picked up.

At 3:30 a.m., Lee's phone rang.

"Are you okay?" a CBC manager asked.

"Yeah, I'm asleep," Lee replied. "What's going on?"

The manager told Lee he was listed as last being seen leaving the broadcast centre around the time of the explosion.

We started chasing people down. We were trying to find everybody.- Dave Bedford, Canadian Olympic Committee media attache at 1996 Olympics

It was also where Canadian Olympic Committee media attaché Dave Bedford had trudged through Centennial Olympic Park at around the same time before heading back to his sleeping quarters at Clark Atlanta University.

The ringing phone interrupted his slumber with an order to report to the Main Press Centre as soon as possible.

Half asleep, Bedford rushed back but shortly after arriving, the facility received a bomb threat and went into lock-down.

"That kind of scares the hell out of you," he says. "You're in there by yourself and none of the other COC staffers can get in or out. It's a little disconcerting."

The phone in the COC office rang constantly, with panicked parents calling to check on their loved ones.

"We started chasing people down," he says. "We were trying to find everybody."

Olympic security protocols are much more sophisticated these days, but back in Atlanta, Bedford and his colleagues connected with the manager assigned to each team. The manager then physically went out and found each team member.

No injuries to Canadian team members

"Once we determined everyone was accounted for then the messaging was really simple," he says. "It was just, 'hey, you, everyone's accounted for and there are no injuries with Canadian team members.'

"Parents and family members were very happy to hear that."

Lee woke up around 7:30 a.m. — he had willed himself back to sleep for fear of not being at his best on air — and immediately called his wife.

"I needed to let her know I was okay," he says. "The Olympics are such a huge undertaking. When you have your loved ones away from an Olympics and they hear something has happened — like a bombing or shooting — everyone thinks you're right in the middle of it even though it was nowhere near you."

Except in this case, Lee was way too close for comfort.

Marnie McBean, right, and Kathleen Heddle won gold in the double sculls on the morning after the bombing. (Bongarts/Getty Images)

That morning, all was quiet when the bus pulled up to the Olympic rowing venue at Lake Lanier. At the entrance, the driver killed the engine and crews conducted their routine bomb sweep before granting the vehicle entrance.

McBean looked over and saw actual spectators in the grandstand — which she saw as a good sign. After all, they wouldn't let people in if the event was cancelled.

Once inside, McBean huddled with her coach and found out the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack was performing the night before at Centennial Park.

"[The band] was nobody my family had ever heard of," McBean says. "So I was like, 'Odds are super high that my family never went.' It was just a guess that my family was fine and then we went on with the race day."

In Lane 4 for the women's double sculls final, McBean and her partner, Kathleen Heddle, sat in their boat with gold in their sights. Heavy favourites, the Canadians lived up to the hype.

'Huge chunk of perspective'

Holding off the Chinese and Dutch at the finish, McBean leaned over and kissed her oars in sweet celebration of Canada's first gold of the Atlanta Games.

Around 2 p.m., McBean and Heddle walked into the lounge in the athlete's village and saw Olympians from around the world glued to the TV in hopes of learning more about the bombing.

"Kathleen and I were staring at real life," McBean says. "We had just done this sporting thing, but there was this huge chunk of perspective that came into that moment."

Already guarded by the RCMP at a safe house in the upscale district of Buckhead, Donovan Bailey received word mid-morning that his 100-metre race was on. From that moment, he intentionally banished any thought of the bombing.

"The 100 metres is the biggest event of every Olympic games since 1896," he says. "So, for me, coming in being the reigning world champion, and obviously, being a favourite to win, my responsibility was to stay focused and compartmentalize as best as I could the events of that day so that I could really get the job done."

WATCH |  Donovan Bailey reacts to news of Atlanta bombing

Donovan Bailey discusses his reaction to the infamous Centennial Olympic Park bombing, in an interview with CBC Sports' 1996 Atlanta Olympic host Brian Williams. Bailey won 100 metre Olympic gold on the same day the bombing took place, on July 27, 1996. 1:01

Competing in spite of a torn left adductor, Bailey concentrated on his game plan.

"I felt that the semifinals and obviously the finals would kind of undo the negativity and the clouds around the Olympics," he said. "And I'm no stranger to that because I did compete for Canada."

On Bailey's ample shoulders rested the hopes of Canadians still scarred by memories of 1988 when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold after testing positive for steroids at the Games in Seoul, South Korea.

That night, Bailey rode to the stadium in a motorcade with police vehicles both in front and behind him.

"I was the king of the world." he says with a chuckle.

In the final, the king was the second last man to burst out of the blocks.

"I realized I had a terrible start," he says. "What I had to do was step back, breathe a little bit and get into my drive phase knowing that when I hit top speed, I would pass everybody."

And pass everybody he did. Knowing he would win at 70 metres, Bailey glided over the finish line and saw a sea of Canadian flags to his right.

He looked at the clock: 9.84 seconds — a new Olympic and world record.

Canada's Donovan Bailey won the gold medal and set a world record in the 100 metres hours after the Olympic bombing in 1996. (Getty Images)

"I opened my mouth," he says. "It was a reactionary thing. I got it done. Let me take my flag and take my place in history."

Standing to the right of that historical moment was an exhausted Dave Bedford, still working after the terrifying experience at the Main Press Centre.

"Donovan ran right by me with both his arms down going at his side and his mouth gaping open," says Bedford, now the chief executive officer of Athletics Canada. "It was wild for sure. Highs and lows to the extremes."

All these years later, Bailey hopes people will look back at the highs of Atlanta even when reliving the lows while watching Richard Jewell at the local movie theatre.

"The Olympic Games should never be about politics — about somebody with some sort of agenda," Bailey says. "The Olympic Games are all about sports and celebrating the greatest athletes on the planet."

About the Author

Vicki Hall

Freelance writer

Vicki has written about sports in Canada for more than 15 years for CBC Sports, Postmedia, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. She has covered five Olympic Games, 10 Grey Cup championships and one Stanley Cup Final. In 2015, Vicki won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing and is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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