In the Spirit of the Olympics

It is impossible to watch the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing without evoking a sense of nostalgia for my Olympic experience over a decade ago. As college sophomores, three of my girlfriends and I worked as security guards at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Yes, security guards. Not so much the gun and cuffs type of guards, more like the crowd control type of guards armed with walkie talkies and hip sacks.

The crowds we managed usually took us seriously, though we did not look or feel serious. Our uniforms screamed FOREST RANGER! more than security guard, and as our Ranger Rick hat and black Reeboks went on each day, we tried so hard to transform into no-nonsense guards, but never made it much past giggling teenagers.

At first we worked eight-hour days, but during the second half of our stint our shifts increased to twelve hours. We had a whole lot of thick polyester going on for our company to expect us to withstand twelve hours in Atlanta in August, but somehow we endured. Well, I know how we endured…

…Walkie talkies. Our supervisor reprimanded us repeatedly for abusing our walkie talkie privileges, but the urge to update each other with famous people sightings, event scores, and A Few Good Men quotes was too tempting. In our minds, seeing the Dream Team, Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, etc. were legitimate reasons for walkie talkie usage.

We also endured the long days by trading sponsor pins, an extremely popular hobby during the ’96 Games. Fortunately for us, three stations to which we were frequently assigned were located at the entrances to the Sponsor Village in Centennial Park (the town square of the Olympics). Manning the entrances to Sponsor Village in a sponsor pin-trading world would be equivalent to striking oil in your backyard or finding a Dorito in the shape of Elvis, which you know would sell for millions on eBay. “I need to see your credentials before entering, please. Ah yes, you are with Kodak. And do you happen to have any extra pins today, sir?” In the picture below, Tracy and I had exchanged pins for a gourmet lunch while on duty at Post 33. This station was much tamer than the ones surrounding Sponsor Village and it also had seating, which was not the case with all posts, so we capitalized on these little luxuries as they came our way. (Note my neck garment, a cooler that you could fill with water and freeze.)

But not every moment as an Olympic security guard was bliss. Sometimes the masses leaving a venue were nearly riotous, swarming at us like Alfred Hitchcock’s birds. Sweaty, smelly people angrily pecked at us for denying them permission to take the short-cut through Sponsor Village to other venues. Additionally, the same day Tracy and I enjoyed our shrimp cocktail at Post 33, we regretted turning our walkie talkies to channel 3 (the police channel) as incoming reports warned policemen about a bomb threat in the kitchen immediately behind us.

Then there was the actual bomb. Until this point in our Olympic adventure, our gravest perils were 1) the punctured water bed at my brother’s (Cliff’s) apartment and 2) the non-friend of Cliff that stayed at the apartment for several days during our stay despite Cliff’s demands for him to leave. This non-friend closely resembled Cliff’s cat, Pookie, in that he laid on the couch all day and left one of the bathrooms gritty and smelling of something in the same genus as kitty litter. The water bed and the loitering non-friend were such minor inconveniences though, really arousing more laughter than aggravation. Cliff’s apartment was otherwise ideal. It had the frill of leather couches, yet the environmentally-friendly flare of cardboard coffee tables – perfect for scribbling phone numbers, messages to roommates, and haikus without wasting unnecessary paper.

And Cliff (and his roommate/best bud, Bill) were incredibly hospitable.

Surely I didn't deserve this

On the night of July 27, 1996, however, we encountered peril on a different scale. Off duty and in civilian attire, a group of about ten of us visited Centennial Park to enjoy the sights and live entertainment. As rockin’ as the Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert was on this stage…

…after about twenty minutes of Jack Mackin’ we were ready to call it a night. Just as we were leaving the park the bomb detonated near this concert sound tower (far left in photo).

We estimated being less than fifty yards from the explosion, a distance that could have easily resulted in serious injury if we were in the explosion’s line of fire. Providentially we did not exit at the same end of the park that we had entered, which kept us away from most or all of the shrapnel. The two people who were killed and 100+ who were injured could not say the same. A couple people in our group suffered from minor scrapes when mass exodus induced mild trampling, but generally we were all safe. We all handled the crisis differently – tears, panic, humor – but each one of us felt blessed.

When we showed up for work the next day, Centennial Park was closed and wrapped in police tape. This pulsating, dynamic time square had become lifeless and eerie overnight. It was a relief to be assigned to stations at other venues for the several days that the park was closed. I spent some time working at the Olympic stadium that hosted the track and field events. I appreciated having the liberty to walk on to the field if I so desired. You know, in case U.S. star sprinter Michael Johnson needed a pep talk or a high five or help carrying his gold medals.

We saw many different sporting events on our time off. The most exciting moment of this volleyball game was sneaking over to the gymnastics side of the building during the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team practice and receiving a friendly wave from the team, including Kerri Strug (pre-broken ankle). The second most exciting thing was discovering that Dippin’ Dots were served at the venue. Not to say that the volleyball game itself was not a thrill, but this was a time when Dippin’ Dots were starting to come alive in popularity. Ice cream of the future?! That’s a big deal!

During a free day reserved for shopping, we stumbled upon a rare opportunity to hold the torch that carried the Olympic flame first from Greece to Los Angeles, and then across the United States…

…before it was passed to Muhammad Ali so he could ignite THE Olympic torch and thus commence the 1996 Games.

It is unfathomable what kind of experience it must be for athletes to participate in the Olympic Games, but I have come to learn that the life-changing experience belongs not just to the athletes and the teams competing, but to anyone who has the opportunity to participate in an event of this magnitude in which the entire planet participates, sometimes with intense competition, but almost always with peace and sportsmanship. It is no wonder the Olympic theme song stirs such nostalgia within me – the tune carries a piece of the world’s history, but it also carries a piece of my history as well.