The countdown is beginning to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. The games will be the largest such event held in what one could call the new era of global terrorism. And with hundreds of thousands of athletes, officials, and spectators packing the Greek capital, security will be a nightmare. Can the spirit of sport survive such anxieties? Or will the Olympic flame burn less brightly as a result?
Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Terrorism at the Olympic Games is, of course, not new.
The 1972 Summer Games in Munich were defined by tragedy when the Black September terror group took Israeli athletes hostage. The incident ended with the deaths of 11 Israelis, five terrorists, and a German policeman. In 1996, one person was killed and some 100 injured when a bomb went off at the Summer Olympics in the U.S. city of Atlanta.
But the scale of the threat today is unprecedented. After the events of 11 September 2001, the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as numerous terrorist attacks around the world, any gathering that brings together prominent participants and guests is considered a high risk.
And with thousands of journalists on hand for the Athens Games, the publicity value alone for a terrorist group that would result from a successful attack is incalculable.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge said last week that no amount of preparation can reduce the risk to zero. But he said the Greek government has made an "unprecedented" effort to ensure security, in cooperation with a panel of seven other countries, including the United States, key European Union members, and Israel.
Rogge said he is happy with the result, and so are officials from the seven nations with whom he has spoken. In all, security is costing the Greek government some 650 million euros ($793 million). Along with 40,000 police and security officials, the Greek armed services will also be deployed for the duration of the games -- from 13 to 29 August. The Olympic chief acknowledged that the world has changed since September 2001, but says the international community cannot allow itself to be paralyzed by the threat of terrorism.
A spokesman for the British Olympic Association, Philip Pope, says it is up to the organizers to provide a secure atmosphere within which the athletes can perform. "Clearly, the Olympic Games provides a focus for anybody around the world who wishes to create trouble," he said. "That's why the international Olympic movement takes the issue of security very, very seriously, and the British Olympic Association is no different. Athletes will be focusing on their event, quite rightly, and it will be up to the organizing committees, and the hard work of the security agencies which are working with the national teams and the organizing committees, to ensure that the games are safe."
With Greece's security and military resources stretched to the limit, NATO is standing by, ready to lend support. An official at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels said that, if Athens asks, NATO could offer Greece AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control) radar planes. The Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center would also be available in the event of an attack with chemical, biological, or radiological weapons.
British sports writer Duncan MacKay says it is only natural to be nervous in view of the overall situation. "Everybody who is due to go to Athens is nervous about the whole security thing, but I don't think it is all that much different from every time one sits at an airport," he said. "You always have fears."
Quite apart from security, there is anxiety among Olympic officials about the state of preparation of the actual games sites. Only 15 of the 39 sports venues are ready, while almost the same number of venues are nearing completion. The organization of such a massive event as the modern Olympics has strained the capacities of a small country like Greece.
MacKay says they are not leaving much time to spare on a lot of the related projects. “I think most of the venues will be finished, but I think that what is of concern is the infrastructure, in terms of transport, and the peripheral things around the stadiums," the writer said.
The main transport worry is whether a 32-kilometer rail link between the new airport and the city will be finished in time. Construction of a tramway is also behind schedule. The main stadium is still without a roof, and a new soccer stadium is little more than two-thirds finished.
So, can the spirit of sport survive amid all the modern stresses -- drug scandals, political interference, and, now, heightened terrorism fears? British Olympic official Pope says the successful 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City -- the first games held after the events of 11 September -- proves that the Olympic flame still burns brightly.
As journalist MacKay said, "It is such a great event, that when it actually happens, it will rise above all the scandals, and people will be just as enthusiastic about it as they were four years ago or 30 years ago."