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ATHENS OLYMPICS

Secure About Safety

Officials express confidence and want to see the focus shift to sports as formal start looms

August 12, 2004|Greg Krikorian, Tracy Wilkinson and Steve Springer | Times Staff Writers

ATHENS — With the first Olympic events completed without incident and the opening ceremony only hours away, security remained the talk of the town here Wednesday as officials expressed confidence in the safeguards now in place -- and the hope that the focus would soon shift to sports.

"We're like the athletes ... we just want this all to begin to prove we are prepared," one U.S. security official said.

"You are probably in the most secure place you can be during August 2004," added Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis -- a sentiment echoed by American athletes.

Counterterrorism experts in recent days have expressed increased confidence that this city and the Olympics are as secure as possible. "I think the anxiety has gone down a lot in the last two or three days," said the U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Of course, no amount of planning here or 11th-hour fixes could reasonably be expected to prevent an act of terrorism that might have taken years to develop, the U.S. official and others acknowledged.

"If there is a plan by Al Qaeda, it would have been put in place a long time ago," the U.S. official said. "And it probably wouldn't be uncovered here.

"You could have stood outside the World Trade Center for months before Sept. 11 and you wouldn't have known what was happening. But you might have found out if you had been to Hamburg. It's the same here. If something is going to be discovered, it's probably going to be someone making an arrest somewhere else and then pulling a string that leads them here."

Panos Livadas, the main government spokesman for the Olympics, said he thought the amount of money spent on security measures -- $1.5 billion -- plus Greece's good standing with Arab countries, would help to inoculate it against Islamic terrorism. The domestic threat, he added, had been defused with a series of successful prosecutions.

"A homegrown terrorist threat does not exist," he said. "Domestic terrorism right now is in jail."

Other security experts suggested it was more likely any attack would come at the periphery of the Games -- such as outlying areas of Greece, the islands or even in a neighboring country -- and not in the heart of the Olympics.

"The periphery is more worrisome than the core targets," said a diplomat whose country is heavily involved in security planning. "It's less prestige [to attack on the periphery] but does no less damage."

Against that backdrop, Greek officials have blanketed this city and various venues with 70,000 security personnel, most of them soldiers and police officers. They also have extended unprecedented access to counterterrorism experts from several other countries, including the U.S., which has dispatched about 200 special forces under the auspices of NATO, U.S. State Department security personnel and more than 125 FBI agents.

It has sometimes been a tense dance, given the Greeks' pride and the natural tendency of any country to insist that it is perfectly capable of protecting itself. "The Greeks want us here and they don't want us here," another U.S. official said this week.

At the same time, Bakoyannis emphasized that while "a lot of people disagree with America's foreign policy," her city and country have no quarrel with Americans or their athletes. And that much seemed clear to many U.S. Olympians.

Late Tuesday night, in a city where some have warned Americans not to venture out alone after dark, Collyn Lopes and Kimberly Rhode of the U.S. shooting team roamed the streets of Athens in search of blankets.

Though the city was sweltering, the air-conditioning in their rooms at the Olympic village was so bone chilling that they were willing to travel around in clothing that clearly identified them as Americans. "We found a store owner who opened up his shop to sell us the blankets," Rhode said. "He was more than kind to us."

U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Bob Condron scoffed at stories about U.S. Olympians being told not to wear clothes identifying their nationality.

"This is not about the colors. It's not about the flag," he said. "It's about behavior. Don't act stupid. We tell our athletes to act the same way they would in going to their grandma's house. It's about behavior and respect."

Patricia Miranda, a U.S. wrestler, said the precautions taken by American athletes were common sense. "You don't go out in the street here and try to provoke people, waving the flag and talking about [President] Bush," she said.

Added Ronda Rousey of the U.S. judo team: "We were told to put our badges in our bag. They told us not to flaunt it. But if someone asks, 'Are you American?' you don't have to lie. It wasn't like we're undercover."

Still, USOC officials waited six days before unfurling the American flag over the building housing U.S. athletes in the Olympic village. USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said it was decided "to assess the conditions" in the village before bringing out the flag. It was raised Tuesday after a ceremony officially welcoming the U.S. delegation.

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