That day I put an end to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta

In this July photo, the Olympic rings and torch from the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta stand near the formerly named Centennial Olympic Stadium, now Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team in Atlanta. AP/David Goldman

In this July photo, the Olympic rings and torch from the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta stand near the formerly named Centennial Olympic Stadium, now Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team in Atlanta. AP/David Goldman

On this day 20 years ago, we woke up and the Atlanta Olympics were over. Some time later, persons at this newspaper were asked to submit our special memories of that period in Georgia’s history.

The story below didn’t make the cut. The city official mentioned below, by the way, was Steve Labovitz, then chief of staff to Mayor Bill Campbell:

Right about now, you’d probably heave a brick at the next video clip about the Olympic athlete who beat cancer, pregnancy, a mother-in-law, shin splints or poor posture.

Which means you’re in a perfect frame of mind for the never-been-told story of how I put an end to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

It’s true. I escorted the last stranger out of town — and participated in a bit of quackery along the way. Not to brag, but it was my first media scam, and I had an amateur’s good luck.

We were a day or so past the closing ceremonies, when a friend from the Asian quarter of Chamblee called and asked a favor. A journalist from a Chinese sports magazine had ridden his bicycle from Washington to cover the Games, and now intended to press on to Los Angeles.

The world had a glut of Chinese-speaking bicyclists, but there was a problem with distribution. Very few of them were in Atlanta. Would I mind accompanying this journalist on the first leg, she asked, from the Olympic Stadium through Cobb County? World peace was at stake.

I said no. Then my conscience stirred itself, the ugly thing, and I called her back.

Pu Fanzhou was the sports writer’s name. Pu as in “Winnie-the.” The rest you need not worry about.

At 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, the first weekend of the post-Olympic era, downtown Atlanta had the look of a college freshman after his first frat party — stunned, pained and drained by the magnificence of his debauchery. Loose paper wafted across the streets. People wandered about in a daze.

My wife and I unloaded the bicycle and my equipment. A mountain biker met us — he was part of the escort, too. We all drifted over to what is now the entrance to Turner Field, where groggy TV camera crews hovered around Mr. Pu, a few Chinese diplomats, and Bill Campbell’s right-hand man.

But what caught our attention was Mr. Pu’s bicycle.

Any fool could see that both tires were flat. The chain was caked with rust. Draped along both sides of the rear wheel, within 4 inches of the ground, was a set of canvas saddlebags, made for a Harley Davidson and crammed with 25 pounds of propaganda pamphlets and stickers. Once it rained, the weight would double.

If he’d pedaled that thing 500 miles from Washington, I was Chairman Mao.

The mountain biker and I swapped glances. Fraud, I thought. Recorded on television, he thought.

We held a quick conference. If we were to escape an embarrassing diplomatic incident, it was decided, we’d have to make it at least out of the range of the television cameras.

Judy dashed off to retrieve the pump from our car. While the politicians speechified, I set to work on Mr. Pu’s tires. Mr. Pu himself was oblivious, but handed us a pair of Chinese flags for the trip.

Once the politicians and Mr. Pu had their say, there was a round of applause and we three cyclists crept off along Capitol Avenue, gently headed for downtown Atlanta.

Mr. Pu wobbled a bit. The weight on his back tire was so great that his front wheel would occasionally rise off the ground. His saddle bag leaked, and rationalizations of Marxist-Leninism With Chinese Characteristics scattered themselves along Marietta Street.

But we were out of sight of the TV cameras, which had faithfully recorded Mr. Pu’s brave departure for the American West — and were in no mood to follow us.

Actually, we made it farther than I expected, about seven miles. Down Techwood to Northside Drive, then down to the McDonald’s at West Paces Ferry Road. A car was waiting for Mr. Pu and his bicycle, and his handler made the proper excuses. Exhaustion from the night before and such. I pedaled into Cobb County alone, my Chinese flag furled and tucked into the water pack on my back.

I heard from Mr. Pu two weeks later. He’d done the 2,000 miles to Los Angeles, he said, across mountains and deserts at a pace close to that of a Tour de France professional. I told him he was a great athlete, and that I’d look him up someday in Beijing.

Thus endeth the day’s history lesson.

 


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