A Night at the '96 Olympics
15 years ago today the Centennial Olympic Games began in Atlanta. Though this derails the chronology of my first 15 there is a story here worth sharing.
Early in the summer of 1996 my friend Chris moved in with me for a few months. Our families are close. I went to their house every day after school from 3rd – 5th grade. Chris’ dad coached one of the world’s greatest sports franchises, the Graysville Bobcats soccer team. We lost only two games in three years, both championships. We were the Buffalo Bills of rec. league soccer. Chris is now also serving the ministry as a youth pastor in Carrolton, GA. Even now our kids get together with the grandparents and go camping together just like Chris and I did growing up. The Altmans and the Branams represent three generations of friendships, very cool.
While Chris crashed with me for the summer in Cartersville he also joined me in working at the golf course. I would like to think that it was also that summer that God used our time serving at Atco Baptist to implant in Chris’ soul a call into the ministry. After I left Atco, Chris succeeded me as youth pastor there just after he graduated college. He has made it 15 years in youth ministry. If I were still a youth pastor I would either be in prison or a psyche ward by now.
It was a Friday afternoon. The Olympics had been in Atlanta for about a week. By the next weekend it would all be over. Chris and I had just gotten paid. We decided that there was no way the Olympic Games could be that close and we somehow not make an effort to be right in the middle of it. So with a few dollars to our name we drove to Kennesaw, caught a bus and headed for Centennial Olympic Park.
We found a $5 burger and walked into the mass of people from all over the world that had descended upon Atlanta. The sidewalks were filled with internationals and scalpers. The internationals were intriguing, but the scalpers slowly became to us like a siren song, begging us for what little money we had in our pockets. The Dream Team was playing that night, $500; out of our league. The men’s volleyball team was also playing that night, $250. We probably had that much between us, but one of us would have to cannibalize the other to make it possible. We had just eaten, no volleyball. Gymnastics. No way. Then we met a man who had two tickets to water polo, Italy v. Russia, 35 bucks apiece. All week long we had watched the swimming events on television. We speculated that somehow with water polo tickets we may be able to sneak in to the end of the men’s relays that were taking place that night. We bought the tickets and caught a bus to the Aquatics Center at Georgia Tech.
If you remember the Aquatics Center for the Olympic Games in Atlanta it was a unique design. It was an indoor/outdoor sort of thing. Everything was covered, but the ends were open near the top. You could see the scoreboards and video screens from the outside and the noise of the crowd easily filtered into the streets. When we got off the bus it was loud, the people at the pool were going nuts. The men’s relay was going on at that very moment and the USA was in the lead. In that moment we believed that our $35 plan to catch the last few seconds of the men’s relay was going to work. When we got off the bus we were immediately ushered into a people trough. People troughs are the same things we do to cattle, except at massive sporting venues it is people. Instead of leading cattle to hay, people troughs lead ticket holders to their seats. The first few turns of the people trough took us closer and closer to the action. The next few turns took us the other way. Being ignorant of the world of Olympic aquatic events we did not realize that water polo pools and racing pools are not the same. The racing pool was massive, Olympic size as they say, and surrounded by 30,000 seats. The water polo pool is more the size of a pool you would find in someone’s backyard, just a slight upgrade from one that you buy at Wal-Mart and blow up yourself. Racing pools seat 30,000. Water polo pools seat about 300. But we were there. We had Olympic tickets and nowhere else to go. Chris and I went onward through the people trough to watch Italy take on Russia in water polo.
What we did not realize was that at the time Italy and Russia were #1 and #2 in water polo. Maybe $35 was a deal after all. I had been to Russia in college, but as an American, ever since the hockey thing, it is very difficult to sit with the Russians at an Olympic event, so we chose the Italians. Needless to say, we had a blast. It was Jeff Foxworthy meets the Cake Boss. We had no idea what was going on. My interpretation of water polo is that you try to throw the ball into the net before the other team drowns you. Though we were clueless, we chanted and cheered, mimicking the Italian fervor with our North Georgia brogues. We may have been shouting total filth and slander at the Russians, but since it was in Italian we had no idea. Whatever it was, all I know is that Italian people know how to have fun at water polo. I have a feeling that Italians know how to have fun at anything.
It was well after midnight when we arrived back at Centennial Park. There we would catch another bus back to Kennesaw. When we finally got on the bus we were well outside the park. I pointed out to Chris that there were police cars rushing about, frantically, everywhere. Whatever it was, it must have been crazy. We were too tired to care. Sleepily we made our way back to Cartersville with only slight curiosities as to what was actually happening.
When we finally arrived back in Cartersville it was almost 3 a.m. Out of habit we flipped on the TV. It did not take us long before we realized why there was so much chaos as we were leaving the park. The Olympic park had been bombed.
They say everyone will experience 15 minutes of fame. In 15 years of preaching I have yet to have my 15 minutes. Yet I can say at this point, I was almost blown up by Eric Robert Rudolph. How’s that? Chris played baseball for Piedmont College. He knew Richard Jewell, the man the media falsely accused and subsequently ruined his life. Maybe that makes Chris famous, who knows? All I know is that my first 15 could have come to an abrupt end with water polo. What a way to die!
Glad to be here.