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Price of Safety: $310 Million

Olympics: Romney says Salt Lake City venues will 'be secured as well as you can secure them.'

January 16, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six years ago, the last time the Olympics were staged in the United States, a bomb went off at a huge open-air plaza in downtown Atlanta. One woman was killed, more than 100 hurt. The plaza had been open to all with easy access--no metal detectors, no fences.

When the Winter Olympics open next month, the open-air plaza in downtown Salt Lake City will be the place each night to celebrate that day's medal winners. But the plaza will be fenced off. And to get in, fans will have to pass through metal detectors. Bags will be searched.

As the Games near, security issues top the agenda, the president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, Mitt Romney, acknowledged Tuesday. But he said he is confident that a $310-million security plan means the various venues in and around Salt Lake will "be secured as well as you can secure them."

For instance, he said, F-16s will patrol the skies. Airspace will be closed off for a 48-mile radius extending out from downtown Salt Lake during certain key events--for instance, the opening and closing ceremonies.

"We feel confident that every source of risk has been addressed. That doesn't mean there's a guarantee," he said. "But all the risks that are known to man have been addressed."

And overall, he said, "We are ready." The Games open Feb. 8. Organizers have already sold $172 million worth of tickets; in Nagano, Japan, four years ago, the total was $80 million. If things go smoothly, Romney said, the Games could be "magical." They will be the last Olympics in the United States for at least 10 years.

Romney said in a meeting with editors of The Times, "There's nothing that keeps me awake at night." But he quickly added, "There will be surprises or snafus," and organizers face a key challenge in transporting athletes, fans and the press to certain sites, in particular to mountain venues in Park City, about a half-hour east of downtown Salt Lake City.

"We will be judged by not whether or not we have problems but whether we're able to correct them quickly enough that they don't interfere with the athletes' experience or the experience of the world that watches them," he said.

About 2,400 athletes from some 80 nations are due at the Games. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has added $55 million to security funding--on top of $185 million committed previously.

In all, after adding another $70 million--$35 million apiece from the state of Utah and from SLOC itself--security costs for the Games now total $310 million, the aim being to create what Romney called a "seamless web" of security.

By contrast, the federal investment in security costs at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, the prior Winter Games in the United States, amounted to $23 million. Federal security funding in Salt Lake is 10 times greater.

Overall, the direct cost of the Salt Lake Games totals $1.9 billion. Federal, state and local government funding accounts for about $600 million; SLOC's budget is $1.3 billion.

Plans call for the deployment of about 11,000 security personnel--5,000 from the military, 6,000 from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

"We have to surround perimeters," Romney said. "The Winter Games have some real peculiarities. It's one thing to secure Staples Center, which has [metal detectors] at the entrances. Now try to secure the downhill course."

Nonetheless, he predicted a less visible military presence at the Salt Lake Games than in Lillehammer in 1994 or Nagano in 1998.

And, "I don't think it will look to the spectator much different than prior Games, if different at all." The escalating costs of the Games have sparked debate about the future direction of the Olympic enterprise--with Romney recently suggesting consideration of the U.S. government playing a role, given its investment in security and other costs, in deciding which U.S. city is chosen to bid internationally for the Olympics.

Traditionally, that decision has been up to the U.S. Olympic Committee; four cities are vying for the 2012 Summer Games--New York, San Francisco, Washington and Houston.

Romney said that he still believes the Games are worth staging in the United States, calling them "a world-stage event" that can "raise the civility of humanity."

He added, "Does it singly bring peace to the world? No. But I believe it does pull toward peace."

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