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Greece Hoping for Safety in Numbers

The host country has pledged to spend a record $820 million on security for the Summer Games.

March 26, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

The 2004 Athens Olympics will be the first Summer Games since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that changed the world, and just how the world has changed was made evident Thursday as the Olympic flame was lighted in Olympia, Greece.

For the first time, spectators at the ancient site were forced to go through metal detectors.

Greece has pledged to spend a record amount to safeguard the 2004 Olympics, more than $820 million. After the recent bombings in nearby Turkey and in Spain, amid opposition in Greece and elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, security planners are acutely aware that they must consider all possibilities -- everything from nails in a backpack on an Athens street to a chemical or nuclear attack.

Officials say they know of no direct threat against the Games or against U.S. athletes.

But U.S. athletes are clearly mindful that these Games are far from risk-free.

Karl Malone, who holds one of the spots on the 2004 version of the Dream Team, the U.S. men's basketball team that will compete at the Summer Olympics, was asked the other day at Laker practice if he had any worries about the security situation in Athens.

"No doubt. No doubt," he said. "Why not? I like life."

For U.S. athletes bound for Athens, the Games present a real problem. In a post-9/11 world, anyone wearing red, white and blue might be singled out. But to pay too much attention to security -- instead of concentrating on the competition -- is to run the risk of giving in to distraction.

"It's a waste of your time to worry about it," said Kevin Barnett, 29, an outside hitter on the U.S. men's volleyball team who played in the Sydney Games in 2000 and is on the team again.

Added Patricia Miranda, 24, a 105-pound wrestler from Saratoga, Calif., whose master's thesis at Stanford was on the economics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, "Maybe I'm a target. But to the point where it's going to enter my mind on my way to Athens? No.

"The security officials are going to go overboard to make sure we're OK."

Greek officials have vowed to do everything "humanly possible" to safeguard the Games. The $820-million-plus security budget for the Games is more than three times the security budget for the 2000 Sydney Games.

In a statement issued in conjunction with Thursday's torch-lighting, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, head of the Athens 2004 organizing committee, said, "I wish to stress once again from here that the Athens Games will be a secure Games.

"We are aware of the new conditions that prevail internationally, we are aware of the difficulties and problems that have occurred, and we are taking all necessary measures in cooperation with the government, the [International Olympic Committee] and our international partners."

Security has been the IOC's priority since the 1972 Games in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

In Atlanta in 1996, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Park, killing one woman and injuring more than 100 other people. Eric Rudolph, a former soldier and survivalist who is accused of having planted the bomb, is in custody, awaiting trial on that case and others.

IOC President Jacques Rogge, in a telephone interview this week, said, "Security must encompass everything. Security must be more than securing the Olympic venues and Olympic hotels and the Olympic perimeter. Security measures are also about protecting the public and the public spaces."

Greece presents what security planners call a challenge.

It has had porous land borders for years. It features miles of secluded coastline. Thousands of immigrants from the Middle East, Eastern Europe or Asia slip into the country each year.

Greece is only an hour by air from the Middle East. It has struggled with domestic terrorism, in particular the leftist group known as 17 November, which targeted U.S. and other Western officials. The group was broken up and more than a dozen of its members jailed last year.

"17 November was never going to be a threat to the Games," said Wayne Merry, a former U.S. diplomat in Athens who dealt there with counter-terrorism issues and has closely monitored Olympic security preparations.

"The problem that 17 November communicated to the world is that Greece is a soft target.

"Greece," he said, "is still a soft target."

Greece's publicly announced Games security strategy is to saturate Olympic precincts -- and the city as well -- with uniformed officers.

About 50,000 Greek police officers and troops will patrol Athens and environs. About 1,400 security cameras are to be installed on obelisks now going up on Athens street corners.

Security assessments have intensified in recent days because of the bombings in Madrid that killed about 200 people March 11, and Israel's assassination Monday of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas. Senior Hamas leaders said Wednesday it did not intend to target Americans.

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