Coming Of Age In America

IT WAS NOT, THE OFFICIALS EXPLAINED, A "SOPHISTIcated" bomb. Somehow, it would seem that any bomb that kills you is sophisticated, but the fact is that, very quickly, it is we who have all grown very sophisticated in the matter of bombs.

"Hey, it's not Oklahoma City," a fellow named Steve said, walking into the Olympic Stadium with his wife the morning after. Steve was, however, troubled by the drizzle. Might it turn into a rain hard enough to affect the competition? They had good tickets.

But he was not insensitive. No, in fact, Steve was pretty much representative of the general attitude of Atlanta, of the citizens of the Olympic Village, the fandom of the Games. The Olympic Bomb did not, above all, evince shock or horror. Oh yes, of course those of us in Atlanta were sorry for the victims. But then, we are saddened, in a passing way, when we hear about some stranger dying in a car crash or in a robbery down at the mall or in the other quotidian tragedies of our time. No, after the explosion came to Centennial Olympic Park, the primary response was simply one of ... well, Why not ... Why not here ... Why not here now? Terrorists have, you see, taught us well to understand how they think. So, by now a cowardly attack on the Olympics seemed almost inevitable to us who have learned that planes can fall in little pieces from the sky. As awful as it is to acknowledge the fact, the day of the Olympic Bomb--July 27, 1996--will be primarily remembered as America's coming of age in accepting these incidents of random public carnage.

"It sounds sort of unfeeling, but you can't let it bother you," said Lance Deal, an American hammer thrower. Steve, the fan, and Lance, the athlete, are both practical men. So are we all, practical men and women now.

What is most instructive about our sophisticated reaction was that there was no outcry--not even a whimper--to call off the Games. Now, think back 24 years ago, in the midst of another Olympics, when it was all foreigners murdered. At that time, the public sentiment in the United States was almost hysterical in demanding that the Munich Games must be canceled. Americans eviscerated their own Avery Brundage, the IOC president, as a heartless ghoul.

But the fact was that in Israel, which had lost its sons, the attitude was altogether different. Israel was already a province of terrorism. Israel believed that to call off the Olympics was to award victory to the monsters. Years later, I went to Israel and spoke with the families of the murdered weightlifters. To a person, every one of them--parents, brothers and sisters, widows and fatherless children--remained gratified that, though the men they loved had been killed, the Games of Munich had only been wounded.

The Israelis knew. And now, you could sense that cold attitude palpably here in Atlanta. You could feel it. We of the United States are in Israel now. Starting last Saturday morning, we are, too, in Belfast and Mindanao and Beirut and Saudi Arabia and in all the other places where terror has become potluck.

The athletes took it, perhaps, even more in stride, for they had their competition, and so, in that favorite overused sports word, they had to stay focused. Soon enough, though, would some Olympians begin to learn about the everyday personal service charge that terrorism deducts from our emotional ATM. For example: the morning after the Olympic Bomb, Barbara Byrne, a former member of the U.S. rowing team, managed to get out from Atlanta to the rowing venue to see some of her old teammates compete. However, a few of her friends' parents were delayed so much by the suddenly more vigilant security that they were unable to arrive in time, robbed forever of the chance to watch the prime moment of their children's youths. "Every Olympics you ever go to, you can look right up and see your mom," Byrne said. "And then they even took that away from us."

But that, of course, is why the Olympics must be such an attractive target to people who can only view dreams and joy and excellence with savage envy. Blood you spill, and take the memory of mothers, too. Moreover, the Olympics, of all sporting events, sets itself up with its pretensions of spirituality, of being a quasi-religious "movement." Others of the world's great international competitions are content with being mere fun and games--which is, truly, all the Olympics are. But, typically, the IOC spokesman immediately embraced the Turkish photographer who died of a heart attack after the explosion as a "member of the Olympic family," when, in fact, the poor man was not; he was a working journalist covering their Olympics.

The Games may have grown huge, but largest of all in their own bloated image. Surely, that Olympian posturing invites trouble from the fanatics and the friendless who would prefer to prick our happiest balloons with bombs.

So, now that our fears have been answered, the question becomes: what city in its right mind would want the Olympics? If Atlanta can hardly be taken to account for terrorist murder, it will always be linked somehow; besides, even before the Olympic Bomb went off, Atlanta was held up in some derision before the world. What city needs to risk that just for a fortnight in the summer sun?

People will surely say now: this tragedy only reminds us how unimportant sports really are. On the contrary. Sports are the lingua franca of the world, so very important in bringing us together. And that only means all the more to those who are bent on blowing us apart.