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World: Let The Games Begin -- But Not Before Security Concerns Are Hurdled

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Greek capital Athens is making feverish preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games, which get under way next August. As the preparations proceed, the focus is slowly moving away from whether various stadiums and swimming pools will be finished on time, to the burning question of how to provide security for thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators. In today's troubled world, the games present a tempting target for terrorists.

Athens, 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Greece, the home of the ancient Olympic Games, is the host for the coming summer games in 2004.

Greece was chosen to host next year's games despite doubts about whether the traditionally chaotic capital Athens could complete all the massive projects needed -- new sports grounds, transport infrastructure, housing, and so forth.

As British sports commentator Duncan MacKay sees it, the Greeks will meet the deadline -- but just barely. "I think [the competitors] will be arriving in Greece, and [the organizers] will be still be frantically trying to complete things," MacKay said. "But...it is such a huge project for the Greeks -- it will be a great source of national angst if they do not finish it." This, he said, is in sharp contrast to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where all the facilities were finished at least a year in advance and could be tested by local sporting events.

MacKay also points out that Greece is the smallest country to host the games since Finland did so in 1952, and the effort has strained Greek resources heavily. As an example of how seriously the Greeks are taking the games and how much it is costing them, he said that six months ago the country "canceled an order for a squadron of jet fighters and put that money into the Olympics."

An indication of how things are proceeding will come on 21 October, when the International Olympic Committee's Coordination Commission for Athens 2004 begins a three-day trip to the Greek capital.

But beyond the question of preparing the infrastructure are other, more menacing issues. These will be the first summer games since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and the possibility that the games will become a major target for terrorist groups is present in everyone's mind.

One has only to think of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when the Israeli team was decimated by the Black September terror attack. More recently, the Atlanta games of 1996 were the target of a bomb attack, although that was only a local incident.

To counter mounting concerns about terrorism, Greece plans the biggest security operation in the history of the games. More than 58,000 police and military personnel will be on duty in a $600 million program.

"The Olympics, for terrorists, are a tremendous vehicle, because they are global games, they have worldwide media coverage and, as a result, Olympic officials are well aware of the risks they face," London-based security consultant Alexandra Ashbourne said. According to Ashbourne, the present global political situation can only heighten the uncertainty. She noted that security was extremely tight at the 2002 Utah Winter Olympics. "Arguably, it is easier to control someplace [compact] like Salt Lake City than Athens, which is not only riddled with domestic terrorists who lie low -- but who are very effective when they surface," Ashbourne said. "But, of course, there are the inherent problems because of today's international situation."

But sports writer MacKay said he believes the risk of a terror attack on the games is diminished because disrupting them would be an unpopular move, not least in the Middle East itself. "By targeting the Olympics, [the terrorists] are also affecting a lot of Arab countries as well, which take the games very seriously," he said. "So, while security will be very tight [in Athens], I don't imagine anyone will try and do anything at the Olympics."

Greece's top Olympics official, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, has said the security operation for the games will be the most detailed ever. The United States is assisting the Greek government in preparing the security plan. In addition, Greece has called together a special intelligence-sharing group, comprising the United States, Israel, France, Britain, Spain, Germany, and Australia, the host country of the successful 2000 games. Venizelos said that teams considered especially at risk, including the U.S. and Israeli teams, will also be allowed to bring their own security entourages.

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