A Security Guard Saved Lives At The Atlanta Olympics, But The Media Declared Him A Terrorist

Controversy and the Olympics have always gone hand in hand. Whether it's in London or Pyeongchang, summer or winter, each incarnation of the Olympic Games usually comes with its fair share of cheating scandals, lurid headlines, and political drama. But few Olympics have been so permanently defined by controversy as the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, GA.

Far from being a matter of dubious athletic accomplishments, shady business dealings, or political posturing, the '96 Games were interrupted by an act of domestic terrorism. The story only gets more disturbing from there, as a would-be hero became an international pariah. Of all the people who have been mistaken for criminals, Richard Jewell stands out more than most. His enduring legacy was shaped - and his life ruined - by a media and law enforcement frenzy that made him a suspect in the very bombing he was instrumental in containing.

While Jewell's name was eventually cleared, the truth behind the Atlanta Olympics scandal - including the story of the bombing and the events in its aftermath - deserves to be retold.

  • Jewell Was Instantly Hailed As A Hero

    After reporting a suspicious knapsack containing a bomb and assisting in the evacuation of Centennial Olympic Park, Jewell was painted as a hero on television and in print. One person died as a direct result of the bomb, while another passed from a heart attack while rushing to film the aftermath. However, casualties could have - and almost certainly would have - been much higher were it not for Jewell's quick action. He alerted authorities moments before a 911 call was made by the real perpetrator warning of the impending attack.

    His role in the story was the story; Jewell was interviewed on the Today show by Katie Couric, who called him a "hero." He was praised for saving many lives - praise that only returned after his exoneration.

  • Two Days After The Bombing, Jewell Was Suddenly A Prime Suspect

    The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Secret Service all interviewed Jewell on the day of the bombing and the day after. He was cleared as a suspect, his actions were commended by the GBI, and he was considered an important witness and a hero.

    On July 28, the president of Piedmont College - Jewell's former employer - called law enforcement officials and told them Jewell may have planted the bomb himself. Officials also considered similar cases - including the story of a security guard at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles who "heroically" defused a bomb that he himself had planted.

    By July 29, Jewell was a suspect.

  • Media Outlets Convicted Jewell In The Court Of Public Opinion
    Photo: Doug Collier/AFP / Getty Images

    Media Outlets Convicted Jewell In The Court Of Public Opinion

    Once the theory of Jewell planting the bomb himself was released into the world, the media ran with it - in some cases even ripping the former police officer to pieces. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he fit the profile of a lone bomber, had a backpack similar to the one that held the explosive device, and was the focus of the investigation. The paper went forward with the story without revealing its sources.

    Jay Leno used his late-night show on NBC to dub Jewell "Una-doofus." News anchor Tom Brokaw said on-air that there was probably enough evidence for the FBI to arrest and prosecute Jewell.

  • Jewell's Mother's Apartment Was Searched On Live Television

    After Jewell was identified as a possible suspect and the national media grabbed hold of the story, the attention surrounding both the man and the bombing intensified. During his time working security for the Olympics, Jewell was living with his mother in Atlanta. Her full address was revealed during a press conference, broadcasting their location to the world.

    After the announcement, the actual search and seizure of her apartment was shown live on national television, filmed from a nearby parking lot.

  • There Was No Evidence Linking Jewell To The Bombing

    One simple truth got buried amid the media frenzy over the Centennial Olympic Park bombing: There wasn't a single shred of evidence tying Jewell to the bomb. One of the key pieces of the timeline was the original 911 call made just before the attack, in which the caller tauntingly informed police about the presence of the bomb.

    By July 30, law enforcement officials knew Jewell was too far from the pay phone to have been able to return to the location of the backpack and report it to authorities at the time he did.

    Despite this information, Jewell wasn't publicly exonerated until October 26, 1996.

  • The Real Bomber Was Convicted In 2005
    Photo: WFMY / Fair Use

    The Real Bomber Was Convicted In 2005

    While Jewell was cleared of all suspicion for the Centennial Olympic Park attack in late October 1996 - three months after the Atlanta Olympics - it took law enforcement officials 16 months to finally name another prime suspect.

    Eric Robert Rudolph was identified as a suspect on February 2, 1998. Already under suspicion for the bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic, Rudolph was formally charged on October 14, 1998. He was arrested nearly five years later in May 2003.

    Rudolph pled guilty to the four bombings attributed to him, and blamed it all on the existence of abortions. In August 2005, Rudolph was sentenced to four life sentences plus an additional 120 days in prison.