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The Security Blanket Goes Global

Olympics: Protection level for Israelis was forever changed after Munich. Sept. 11 changed it for the world.

September 06, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — At the Sydney Olympic Games two years ago, the Israeli team had a special fence around the compound where the athletes, including sprinter Gideon Yablonka, stayed. "We were the only team with a fence around our compound," he recalls.

Anything that moved inside or outside the Israeli compound got noticed. "We had video cameras all over triggered by sensors," Yablonka says. "If somebody moved, the cameras would go on with a beep."

There was muscle too, highly trained security guards at the ready, with guns.

Yablonka, 24, sighed. He said, "Not too many people like us. It's problematic. But we really don't think about it. It's their job," that of security officials, "they'll think about it. My job is the track meet. That's what I focus on, not whether someone is going to come and blast me away, which--knock on wood--I hope is never going to happen."

Since the 1972 Munich Games, in which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists and, ultimately, killed, it has always been a special burden to be on the world stage with the word "Israel" stitched into one's team jersey.

Until the last year, that predicament was dismissed by many as unique to Israeli sports teams.

The terrorist attacks last Sept. 11 in the United States, however, have forced Olympic and security officials worldwide to focus a renewed intensity on potential threats.

"Now it's the entire world," says one U.S. official, acknowledging that American athletes and delegations are at increased risk: "Obviously, 'USA' has taken on a whole new [meaning]. We realize that terrorists have found where the United States is."

Since Sept. 11, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "We have to take a look at what we do on a day-to-day basis, just as the Israelis have been doing. The way things have changed is we realize it's no more that we're safe in our country and maybe not safe in other countries."

Security costs at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games topped more than $300 million. The security tab at the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics is currently estimated by Greek officials at about $600 million; some security experts, however, say that bill may ultimately reach, perhaps even top, $1 billion.

Recent months, and escalating tensions around the world, have made plain just how sensitive a task security can be. In Israel, the issues have long been magnified.

For instance, an athlete identified with any Israeli team competing abroad goes through extensive security briefings before a trip, is told not to wear identifying gear in free time, is sometimes driven to practice and meets in armed convoys, is always on alert.

"We wear [team gear] only at practice and games," said Shimon Mizrahi, the longtime owner of the professional basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv. "If the players go walking in the streets, they don't wear their colors."

In May, FIFA, world soccer's governing body, was asked by various Arab countries to ban Israel from the sport because of policies toward Palestinians. Eight Arab soccer federations had requested suspension of Israel, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said in announcing that the requests had been denied. "We're not a political organization," he said.

That same month, a delegation from the Israeli Olympic Committee traveled to Kuala Lumpur, and was issued a visa by the government there--a moderate Muslim nation--only after intense pressure from a senior International Olympic Committee official. Upon arrival, the Israelis found that their flag was the only one of 199 from Olympic committees around the globe not hanging from the ceiling of the hotel ballroom where the meeting took place; the Palestinian flag was among those displayed.

A few weeks before the meeting in Malaysia, the head of Iran's Olympic Committee, Mostafa Hashemi Taba, had urged International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge to expel Israel from the IOC. Rogge promptly rejected Hashemi Taba's call.

Though Israeli delegations perhaps have more extensive experience in dealing with the pressures of politics and sport, others--including U.S. teams--have quickly learned over the last year that they are not immune.

Just days ago, the U.S. wrestling team pulled out of the world freestyle championships in Iran after being warned by the U.S. State Department of a threat; the nature and scope of the threat have not been made public. The tournament began Thursday in Tehran.

The U.S. women's field hockey team arrived May 22 in New Delhi for a World Cup qualifying tournament but left about a week later, after the U.S. State Department advised the team to go home because of mounting tension between India and Pakistan. The U.S.-India series was finally played in June--at a neutral site, in Staffordshire, England.

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