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Recalling '96 Olympic Games from ‘the bunker’

Most workdays began around noon, ended after midnight

POSTED: July 24, 2011 1:46 a.m.

For the last 15 years, I've been the old-timer in the newsroom who conjures up memories from those surreal two weeks in 1996 when the Olympics came to town.

Sometimes it's pointing out the difference between rowing and paddling ("seriously, you don't row a kayak.").

Or remembering the night of the Centennial Park bombing and the hours of confusion that followed (accused bomber Richard Jewell went to my high school, and my sister knew him; true story).

Or perhaps chiding someone when they work a long week, reminding them (cue the old man voice), that "you young punks don't know NOTHIN' 'bout long weeks. Why, back in '96, I worked 21 days straight, 14 hours a day ..."

So when it was suggested I write a column about the Olympics, I said, OK, sure. Yet, asking me to share memories of the games is like asking the guy working in the engine room to describe the scenery on a Caribbean cruise. Most of my time was spent in The Times' newsroom, Olympic Command Central HQ.

Yet I didn't miss out completely. Covering the Olympics was perhaps the biggest single event in this paper's 64-year history. Elections, man-made and natural disasters, they all have a place in newsroom lore. But you don't get to plan coverage of those for three years, as we did for the Olympics. Nor do you nearly double your readership over a two-week span.

As nearly a million people filtered into Georgia that summer, our newsroom felt a surge of its own. The Times then was owned by Gannett, and to help cover the games for our expanded daily edition and the chain's 100 or so newspapers, we added more than a dozen "loaner" editors and artists from other papers. In addition, we hired five college interns to cover non-Olympics news. We barely had room to put them all, some sharing desks in shifts.

Weeks of planning sessions were our Olympic trials, the conference room our practice facility.

A key part of that planning was learning about the sports to be covered.

Clay Lambert, our main Olympics reporter, helped us become experts on rowing, canoeing and kayaking. I even took a U.S. team roster home to study their names and events.

A few weeks out, The Times staff was invited on a tour of the Clarks Bridge Park venue as it was being readied. We clambered over the massive aluminum bleachers perched on a platform on the shore opposite the park. It was as if someone planted a high school football stadium on the side of a lake, one able to hold 16,000 sun-baked spectators.

Fortunately, the weather cooperated during the games. Had we endured the kind of heat wave seen this summer, they'd have been carting out fricasseed Finnish fans by the boatload.

On the path to the lake, we followed a long walkway lined with flags of the competing nations and tried to guess each one. That was my best chance to get into the Olympic spirit.

After that, I was ensconced in my bunker, seldom to emerge. I remember glancing up at the TV to see Muhammad Ali light the flame at the opening ceremonies, a moment that gave everyone goosebumps.

Most workdays during the Olympics began around noon and ended after midnight. Well, except for one. We had finished the paper for Saturday, July 27, and I was the last person left in the newsroom to tidy up in the wee hours.

Then news came of the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park. As the seriousness of the attack became known, I soon was surrounded by editors and reporters who rushed back as we remade the Saturday paper overnight for a dawn press start.

I never made it out to Clarks Bridge Park during the events. I did make it to one baseball game between Cuba and somebody (Nicaragua maybe?), courtesy of a colleague's winning lottery ticket. I dozed through much of it, but at least I could say I had gone to the Olympics.

Looking back, I wish I'd climbed out of my rabbit hole more often to take in the sights, sounds and excitement all around us. Yet sharing the tales of that special event with readers was my role, one I willingly accepted.

And I'm not devoid of memories. I remember walking down Capitol Avenue toward old Fulton County Stadium for the baseball game and seeing the Olympic flame burning in that big french fry holder that still towers over the road. THE Olympic flame, lit at Mount Olympus, the one I had seen as a kid on TV from Mexico City, Munich, Montreal and other sites around the world.

Even if you're stuck in an office for 21 straight days, that's something you never forget.

Keith Albertson is managing editor of The Times. As sports editor in 1996, he served as the paper's Olympic co-editor.



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