Unspeakable Times

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

Jodi Smith
6.9k views 11 items

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 Hai... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list A Security Guard Saved Lives At The Atlanta Olympics, But The Media Declared Him A Terrorist
Photo:  ESPN 30 for 30: Judging Jewell/ESPN Films
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 ... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list A Security Guard Saved Lives At The Atlanta Olympics, But The Media Declared Him A Terrorist
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 Apartm... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list A Security Guard Saved Lives At The Atlanta Olympics, But The Media Declared Him A Terrorist
Photo:  ESPN 30 for 30: Judging Jewell/ESPN Films
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.