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Are the Winter Games Safe?


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Salt Lake City, Utah Jan. 23, 2002 (AP by Tim Dahlberg)–If chain links and razor wire aren’t enough, motion sensors in the fences around Olympic sites should make sure no uninvited guests get inside.

If someone does, sniper teams will be ready.

Those lucky enough to have hockey tickets will have their faces scanned to see if they match suspected terrorists. At all venues, bomb-sniffing dogs and hundreds of cameras will constantly search for anything suspicious.

And everyone will spend a long time shivering in the cold while waiting to be searched.

The plan to protect these Winter Games dwarfs any such plan at any Olympics. With a price of $310 million–most of it picked up by taxpayers–it will cost nearly twice as much to protect these games as it did to stage the last Winter Olympics in the United States, 22 years ago in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The money has bought the latest in technology and an army’s worth of manpower.

There’s only one thing it can’t buy–a promise the games will be safe.

“There is no guarantee it is a fail-safe system,” Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said.

Still, he believes it’s a good plan, especially after $40 million worth of upgrades following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He and other top administration officials traveled to Salt Lake City in the weeks before the games to spread the word about safety to spectators and athletes.

The nation’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General John Ashcroft, spent five days here checking out the arrangements and getting in a few runs on the ski slopes.

“The magnitude of the conduct of this enterprise is almost impossible to comprehend without being here,” Ashcroft said.

That hasn’t convinced many Americans the games won’t be a target. A third of those questioned in an Associated Press poll said a terrorist attack at the games was likely. Nearly two-thirds said they didn’t like the idea of having to spend taxpayer money to protect the games.

They’re not the only ones fearful.

The Japanese were going to bring their own gas masks, just in case, but dropped the plan after it became public. Other nations are traveling with security teams of their own and loading up with antibiotics in case of an anthrax attack.

And some foreign athletes say they won’t march in the opening ceremonies because they fear being attacked.

“As suddenly as Sept. 11 happened, so suddenly can also something happen in Salt Lake City,” German speedskating star Anni Friesinger said. “I definitely will not attend the opening and closing ceremonies. I am really concerned.”

Actually, the opening and closing ceremonies might be the most secure events. With President Bush expected to attend, authorities will even close the Salt Lake International Airport to all flights for four hours.

Indeed, security officials who have spent much of the last two years analyzing every conceivable threat say they will be prepared to handle anything from a traffic jam to a biological attack when the games begin Feb. 8.

What still worries them, though, is the possibility of terrorism away from an Olympic site. That’s what happened at the Atlanta Games when a pipe bomb in Centennial Park killed one and injured more than 100 others.

“I feel a little bit of apprehension about the individual, like the Atlanta incident,” said Robert Flowers, head of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command, the umbrella security organization for the games. “But we can’t just walk down streets and start checking bags.”

The security team not only has to protect the athletes, but the 20 different heads of state who are expected at various times during the games. Members of the International Olympic Committee will stay in a hotel protected by cement barricades and security fencing.

The Secret Service is in charge, thanks to a special designation of the games as a National Special Security Event. But they’re far from one in a security operation that includes dozens of different agencies and departments ranging from the U.S. Forest Service to local police departments.

Nearly 16,000 police, National Guardsmen, federal agents and security volunteers will combine into a single force so big that each athlete could have six bodyguards. The safety command consists of 60 state and federal agencies, the largest U.S. security team ever assembled.

“Everybody I talk to thinks it’s way overkill,” said Bruce Baird, a Salt Lake City resident and attorney who has no plans to attend the games. “No one here thinks there’s any need for the kind of unbelievable security that they have.”

Organizers originally envisioned a security force that would largely go unnoticed. What they ended up with after Sept. 11 was a plan that will include National Guardsmen lining the perimeters of 10 Olympic venues and five other designated areas, including the athletes’ village.

If the downtown security zone already set up is any indication, spectators will have to brave long lines in the cold to be searched. National guardsmen will be everywhere, mostly unarmed, but in sight.

That will contribute to a military look to the games, although it probably won’t be noticed by the average TV viewer.

“There won’t be a soldier behind every athlete,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said.

Behind the scenes, the Secret Service will have sniper and assault teams ready, while specialized units will monitor for biological and chemical threats. In the air, U.S. Customs planes and Blackhawk helicopters will enforce no-fly zones.

At night, heat-sensing cameras will look into the forests surrounding ski slopes to find anyone who might be lurking in the snow.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has even prepared for a 6.2 magnitude earthquake hitting the Salt Lake valley.

“No one is going to offer a 100 percent guarantee of safety,” said Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee. “But I think it’s riskier flying than being at our opening ceremonies.”

Unlike Atlanta, Salt Lake City will fence off its medals celebration area downtown, as well as most venues. In all, 900 square miles of Olympic sites will be protected.

The games also have history on their side. Unlike the bloody legacy of the Summer Games, no terrorists have ever attacked a Winter Olympics.

“I feel very confident what may occur will occur outside a venue and not inside,” Flowers said.

Salt Lake City also has the advantage of being relatively small; 898,000 people live in the city and surrounding county. So suspicious activity should be harder to hide.

“Get out an atlas and look and see where Salt Lake is,” said Dick Pound, an IOC member from Canada. “It’s a long way from anywhere. You can’t blend in in Salt Lake.”

Once the games begin, the security effort will be run from a fifth floor command center in a downtown building. Inside a large windowless room, workers from a variety of agencies and departments monitor about 70 computer screens and a series of large video screens.

Officials won’t say how many video cameras will monitor activity in and outside venues, but it’s clear the security plan relies on real-time monitoring of video. The cameras will even be linked to a federal intelligence center in Washington, D.C.

Security planners say there have been no credible threats directed against the games. Romney believes terrorists wouldn’t attack an Olympics because it would be viewed as an attack against the world, not just the United States.

None of that stops people like Flowers, though, from worrying about the what-ifs.

Flowers’ job is to make the Olympics completely safe. At the same time, he knows no amount of security can ensure that.

“My biggest worry,” he said, “is maybe there won’t be much forgiveness in the public eye if something does happen.”

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press