Centennial Olympic Park Bombing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first attack on an Olympic Games since the murders of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing resulted in two deaths, dozens of injuries, and criticism of the handling of the incident by officials and police. The event also increased security concerns at subsequent Olympic Games.

Summary of Event

The atmosphere was festive in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in the early morning hours of July 27, 1996. The second week of the 1996 Olympic Games had just begun, and thousands of celebrants had gathered in the park for a concert by the Georgia rock band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. Suddenly, at 1:21 a.m., the revelry was broken as a bomb blast shook the Olympic complex and sprayed shrapnel into the crowd. The games of the Twenty-sixth Olympiad, held on the hundred-year anniversary of the first modern games, had become the scene of a premeditated act of mass violence. Terrorist acts Centennial Olympic Park bombing Olympic Park bombing Olympic Games;Centennial Olympic Park bombing [kw]Centennial Olympic Park Bombing (July 27, 1996) [kw]Olympic Park Bombing, Centennial (July 27, 1996) [kw]Park Bombing, Centennial Olympic (July 27, 1996) [kw]Bombing, Centennial Olympic Park (July 27, 1996) Terrorist acts Centennial Olympic Park bombing Olympic Park bombing Olympic Games;Centennial Olympic Park bombing [g]North America;July 27, 1996: Centennial Olympic Park Bombing[09510] [g]United States;July 27, 1996: Centennial Olympic Park Bombing[09510] [c]Crime and scandal;July 27, 1996: Centennial Olympic Park Bombing[09510] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;July 27, 1996: Centennial Olympic Park Bombing[09510] Rudolph, Eric Robert Jewell, Richard Hawthorne, Alice Uzunyol, Melih

Forty-four-year-old Alice Hawthorne was dead of a shrapnel wound to the head, and thirty-seven-year-old Turkish cameraman Melih Uzunyol, rushing to film the immediate aftermath of the bombing, suffered a heart attack and died. The blast wounded 111 other spectators and put a temporary halt to the festivities surrounding the Olympic Games. The Games would continue the following day under increased security, but although the 1996 Olympics were considered a general success—both financially and athletically—the bombing cast a pall over the event that prompted International Olympic Committee chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch to forgo the customary closing-ceremonies declaration that the most recent Olympics were the best ever.

Although U.S. president Bill Clinton immediately pledged to use the full resources of the federal government to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice, authorities were left with little evidence and few plausible leads in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Investigation of the scene and interviews with witnesses indicated that the bomb, fashioned from pipe and packed with nails, had been planted underneath a park bench inside a military-style backpack. Its design and placement were intended to inflict large-scale damage by firing shrapnel directly toward the crowd gathered in front of the stage where the musical act was to perform; the bomb had tipped over prior to the blast, however, alleviating the likelihood of increased casualties.

Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, after an explosion hit a tower near the stage at a concert during the 1996 Olympics.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Richard Jewell, a private security guard working at the event, had discovered the backpack just minutes prior to the blast and reported its presence to police. Shortly after Jewell and other security guards began evacuating the area, the bomb exploded. At first, Jewell was commended for his vigilance in discovering the bomb and for his courage while attempting to clear spectators from the scene. Suspicions quickly began to turn to Jewell, however, as agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation;Centennial Olympic Park bombing (FBI) questioned him intensively, conducted searches of the apartment he shared with his mother, and placed him under twenty-four-hour surveillance.

Media reports that Jewell had exhibited overzealous and erratic behavior in his previous employment as a police officer, along with photographs showing Jewell dressed in camouflage and posing with firearms, fueled public suspicion that Jewell had perpetrated the bombing. Although Jewell was never charged with a crime or officially named as a suspect, in the days and weeks following the bombing the news media routinely identified him as the primary suspect in the investigation. After months of investigation yielded no evidence against Jewell, federal authorities formally cleared him of all suspicion in October, 1996. In July, 1997, U.S. attorney general Janet Reno apologized to Jewell on behalf of the federal government.

Having failed to yield any formal suspects, the FBI investigation of the Olympic Park bombing appeared to be at a standstill by the end of 1996. In January and February, 1997, two more bombings in the Atlanta area—one at an abortion clinic and the other at a nightclub frequented by lesbians—revived the investigation as authorities explored possible connections between the Olympic Park bombing and the more recent attacks. The bombs used in all three cases were similarly designed, and letters received by local newspapers attributing the bombings to a mysterious organization called the “Army of God” suggested that the attacks were the work of political extremists. Witnesses to a bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 29, 1998, under similar circumstances provided a description of a white pickup truck leaving the scene and a partial license plate number, and this information led authorities to identify North Carolina resident Eric Robert Rudolph as a suspect in the Birmingham bombing in February, 1998.

Rudolph, a former U.S. Army private with ties to the white supremacist Christian Identity organization, subsequently fled to the mountains of western North Carolina to evade capture. Federal authorities searching for Rudolph in the area found themselves hindered both by the rugged terrain and by the resistance of some local residents, who either sympathized with Rudolph or believed him innocent. Surviving on stolen and scavenged food (and, allegedly, on the assistance of supporters), Rudolph remained a fugitive until May 31, 2003, when he was arrested in Murphy, North Carolina, by an officer on routine patrol who spotted him searching for food in a garbage bin. Rudolph subsequently pleaded guilty to the Olympic Park bombing and the other attacks and received four consecutive life sentences. He was incarcerated at a federal “supermax” (highest level of security) prison in Florence, Colorado, on August 22, 2005.

Richard Jewell subsequently became a symbol in American popular culture for persons wrongfully accused of crimes and vilified in the media. Following his exoneration, Jewell filed lawsuits against various media outlets, including the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television network and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. By 2005, all of these cases except the suit against the Journal-Constitution had been settled out of court. On August 1, 2006, more than ten years after the bombings, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue formally honored Jewell for his heroism during the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. In August, 2007, Jewell died from complications of diabetes.

Significance

The Centennial Olympic Park bombing was the first act of violence to occur at the site of the Olympic Games since the murder of eleven Israeli athletes and one police officer by religious extremists during the 1972 Games in Munich, West Germany. The perpetrator of the Olympic Park bombing was unsuccessful in his stated objective to create a major disruption of the Games, given that all subsequent events were held as scheduled under heightened security. The attack did, however, contribute to a general air of negativity surrounding the Atlanta Games, which had already been marred by traffic problems and technological failures. Olympic officials drew criticism for what some perceived to be a lack of responsiveness to the bombing, including the decision to hold the events of the following day as scheduled.

In addition, the attack proved embarrassing to the United States, which had urged other nations to crack down on extremist activity during the Olympics, and to federal authorities as a result of their treatment of Jewell and the difficulties they encountered in identifying and apprehending the perpetrator. The bombing inspired the use of increased security measures at subsequent Olympic Games—a trend that would be further heightened following the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., of September 11, 2001.

The Olympic Park bombing and the subsequent attacks for which Rudolph claimed responsibility were part of a wave of activity by right-wing political groups in the United States in the 1990’s that led to numerous acts of violence and confrontations with police, including the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993; the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995; the standoff between police and the Montana Freemen in 1996; and the murder of Dr. Bernard Slepian by an antiabortion activist in 1998.

Media coverage of the Olympic Park attack and the subsequent investigation, particularly concerning the handling of the Richard Jewell story, inspired popular debate concerning the ethical responsibility of broadcasters and journalists to ensure the credibility and objectivity of news content; yet the fallout over the Jewell incident did not result in significant change in the treatment of criminal suspects in the media. Terrorist acts Centennial Olympic Park bombing Olympic Park bombing Olympic Games;Centennial Olympic Park bombing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Gus. “The American Case: Terrorism in the United States.” In Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2006. Places the Olympic Park bombing within the larger context of domestic terrorism in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shepard, Alicia C. “Going to Extremes (Olympic Bombing Suspect Richard A. Jewell).” American Journalism Review 18 (October, 1996): 38-53. Presents a critical analysis of the news media coverage of the bombing and the subsequent investigation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vollers, Maryanne. Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph—Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Journalistic narrative of Eric Rudolph’s life and criminal activities includes a detailed account of the Centennial Park bombing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yarbrough, C. Richard. And They Call Them Games: An Inside View of the 1996 Olympics. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000. Account of the Atlanta Olympics by a member of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. Discusses the bombing and its aftermath from the perspective of an insider.

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