ATLANTA — That sound you heard was a bomb. The explosion at Centennial Park that claimed one life and affected thousands of others may be your first memory when someone says, “Olympics, 1996.”

But not your last.

That sound you heard was also the roar of aston ish ment. Michael Johnson blazed into another world in the 200-meter final, and even Johnson, so control-happy he irons his track suits, let out a scream and threw his hands to the sky. A few nights earlier, Canada’s Donovan Bailey did the same thing at the same spot on the Olympic track, screaming as he smashed the world record in the 100.

Astonishment? A freckle-faced swimmer named Amy Van Dyken won four gold medals, including one in the butterfly, which she later acknowledged: “I hadn’t even practiced!” Astonishment? The United States won a gold medal in women’s gymnastics, the Chinese swimmers disappeared, and Nigeria — Nigeria?
— won the soccer gold medal.

That sound you heard was the drip of tears. A Greco-Roman wrestler, Matt Ghaffari, wept on the medal stand after losing to his Russian nemesis for the 21st straight time. And later, on those same mats, a wrestler named Kurt Angle also cried, on his knees, hands together in prayer. He was weeping for the joy of his new gold medal, and for the grief he could not share it with an old friend, Dave Schultz, who had been shot dead.

The women’s softball team cried in each other’s arms, the women’s soccer team cried in each other’s arms, Romanian gymnasts cried when they fell, and Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie cried on the medal stand, having fought off a trio of conspiring Kenyans to capture the gold for his ravaged nation. There were tears of relief, tears of grief, tears of ripped muscles and tears of broken hearts. That sound you heard was emotion bubbling over.

Moments best forgotten

That sound you heard was also the gag of embarrassment. Atlanta’s Olympic bus drivers were so pressured and ill- prepared that some walked off the job in the middle of a trip, leaving their vehicles on the highway. NBC’s TV coverage was painfully jingoistic — when it wasn’t a miniseries — and the moments it overlooked, particularly those of foreign athletes, would have made an interesting Olympics all by themselves.

Embarrassment? There was Shaquille O’Neal, at party after party, until 2 or 3 a.m., even on nights before games. There was gymnastics Svengali Bela Karolyi, soaking in the limelight, while his star pupil, Kerri Strug, was being taken to a hospital. There was the British Olympian who proposed marriage to a female teammate during the opening ceremonies — a cute story, except the guy was already married. Now that’s embarrassing.

That sound you heard was also the howl of disbelief: Linford Christie refusing to leave the track after double- faulting away his title defense in the 100 meters, and boxer Floyd Mayweather, who had his hand raised in victory by the referee, only to hear the announcer declare that his opponent, a Bulgarian, was the winner.

That sound you heard was the creep of age, which left Janet Evans no better than sixth place in the pool, Mary Decker Slaney a nonfactor on the track and Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt throwing in his last Olympic basket.

But that sound you heard was also the holler of youth, a 16-year-old water

bug named Brooke Bennett, who stole gold in Evans’ former specialty, the 800-meter freestyle, and 20-year- old Lindsay Davenport, who stunned the more-decorated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario for the gold medal in tennis.

Greed and selflessness

That sound you heard was the jingle of money. From the endless souvenir stands that turned downtown Atlanta into the world’s largest flea market, to the sudden appearance of football shark-agent Leigh Steinberg, who now has a new client, Strug. The U.S. Olympic Committee actually complained that Livonia swimmer Sheila Taormina gave an interview while wearing a sweat suit not made by Champion, a $40-million sponsor. That sound you heard was greed, greed, greed.

It was also the sound of arrogance. Carl Lewis using the TV media to push himself onto a relay team, and that same TV media questioning Lewis’ absence when the United States lost — instead of recognizing that Canada had the superior squad. Arrogance? How about Reggie Miller complaining about his hotel, or the IOC, which happily chose Atlanta’s money over Greece’s history, now complaining that these games were too commercial?

But that sound you heard was also the ring of courage and selflessness. From the bronze medal that swimmer Angel Martino handed over to a friend who was dying of cancer, to the final jump of injured Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s Olympics, to South Africa’s Hezekiel Sepeng, the first black from his country to win a medal. He ran a terrible race, then bolted outside in the final 30 meters and passed all but one runner in a mad gasp for the silver.

“I give the medal to my country, black and white,” he said.

That sound you heard was joy, grief, pain, ecstasy, music, cheers, sirens and ambulances, things that go boom and light up the sky, things that go boom and leave us bleeding and broken. It was party, convention, chaos, inspiration, the biggest thing in a world of big things. In the end, it is obvious. That sound you heard was America.

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