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On This Date in Sports July 27, 1996: When the Hero is Treated Like a Villain

in collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

 

The calm of the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta is rocked when a bomb explodes in a park that was built as a centerpiece and gathering place for visitors and fans. The bomb kills one person due to a piece of shrapnel, and a second person died indirectly due to a heart attack. It would have been worse if not for a security guard named Richard Jewell who found the bomb and began evacuating the area. 

The 1996 Summer Olympic was a big moment for the City of Atlanta. Since winning the bidding, there was great anticipation for the state of Georgia to showcase the city and the region to the world. In the middle of venues was a park where fans gathered between events. The Centennial Olympic Park was like a street fair in the middle of the Olympics with musical performances and vendors. 

One week after the opening ceremonies, a Green Backpack was left abandoned. Just before midnight, Richard Jewell, who was providing security in the park, noticed the suspicious bag and began moving people out of the area and alerting authorities. At the same time, a bomb threat was sent to the police. Inside the backpack was a set of pipe bombs that would explode. One person, Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old, was struck by a nail and killed. There were 111 injuries, but due to the spotting of the bomb, most fans had moved safely away from the bomb. A second person would die indirectly as a cameraman from Turkey suffered a heart attack running to the scene to cover the explosion for Turkish television. 

Richard Jewell was at first hailed as a hero for his actions. However, the FBI leaked a report that Jewell was a person of interest in the case and the same media that hailed him as a hero now swarmed like vultures. A search warrant for his home was issued as several materials were pulled out of the house. Most in the media had convicted Richard Jewell before he was arrested. This included Tom Brokaw, who all but declared that Richard Jewell was guilty. Jewell, who at one moment was a hero now, was a villain as his life was turned upside down. 

The Olympics, which continued uninterrupted, ended a week later without an arrest in the Olympic Park bombing. Richard Jewell had to go into seclusion to hide from the media swarm and the speculation of his guilt. Trying to get the media off his back, Jewell took a polygraph, which he passed. Three months after the bombing, the FBI released a statement that Richard Jewell was not a suspect and regretted the leak of information as the property seized in the search warrant was returned. The statement partly exonerated Jewell, who later filed libel lawsuits against the media that had declared him guilty.  Most of these suits were settled out of court, as NBC paid $500,000, while “sticking to their story.”

Two years after the games, the FBI declared Eric Rudolph as the suspect in the Olympic Park bombing. Two more bombs were planted at an abortion clinic and a lesbian bar in Atlanta. In Birmingham, Alabama, another bomb exploded, killing a police officer all had the same characteristics of the Olympic Park bombing and were linked to Rudolph. He was on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Rudolph would be caught in 2003. Two years later, he pled guilty to all four bombings, including the Olympic Park bombing, and received a life sentence.