Sunday, August 29, 2004
Security a success -- and overkill -- in Athens
ATHENS, Greece -- There were Patriot missiles, citywide
surveillance cameras, a chemical-sniffing blimp and a $1.5 billion
price tag. In the end, though, the biggest security breaches at
these Olympics were two men in skirts.
Despite dire warnings of hijacked airplanes, dirty bombs and
killer kites, the games entered the Closing Ceremonies Sunday with
no major security problems. Was that because the police operation
worked, or because it was overkill?
"I think both," said Maria Bossi, a leading Greek terrorism
expert. "I think we did have an overdose of security."
Western nations, expressing concern that Greece wasn't doing
enough to protect athletes and spectators from terrorists,
pressured the host nation to strengthen its security plan in the
run-up to the games. Greek officials who bristled at the criticism
said the lack of problems showed that the worries were unfounded.
"During this entire time, our actions have served as a reply to
the harshest of commentators," said Public Order Minister Giorgos
Voulgarakis. "We organized the games in an environment of security
and discretion. This is now recognized by all."
Greece's 11 million people warily watched costs more than double
to an unheard-of $1.5 billion. That included about 70,000 police
and soldiers, and a massive array of surveillance equipment,
including undersea sensors, street cameras and the sensor-laden
blimp. Patriot missile launchers were visible atop a hill outside
the Helliniko Sports Complex, where athletes played softball,
baseball and field hockey.
With the first Olympics of the post-Sept. 11 era ending, the
Greeks are left holding the check, and many are bitter.
"This was pretty much blackmail from the international
community," Bossi said. "We couldn't do otherwise."
But some said the money was worth it to guarantee that the
Olympics were safe.
"All the money in the world is nothing," said Mohammed
al-Bana, a 42-year-old marble cutter. "I'm very happy."
Of course, the unanswerable question is whether any terrorists'
plans were thwarted by the security blitz, or whether the games
would have been fine without the extra security. Athletes -- who
admittedly aren't footing the bill -- said they appreciated the
"All I know is that nothing happened here," said Steven Lopez,
a U.S. gold medalist in taekwondo. "It's always better being safe
The prospect of a last-minute trip by Secretary of State Colin
Powell prompted a small, violent demonstration downtown, but the
trouble -- which occurred only yards away from tourists watching the
changing of the Parliament guard -- remained far from Olympic
venues. Other minor scuffles between police and self-proclaimed
anarchists also failed to disrupt the games.
Powell canceled his trip on Saturday, with State Department
officials saying he didn't want opposition to his presence to
distract from the closing ceremony.
Despite the high-tech, big-budget security measures, protection
at times seemed a bit haphazard. Guards occasionally failed to
check the bags of visitors at venues, and in some cases waved
journalists into areas supposedly reserved for athletes.
A writer for a British tabloid claimed he got a job at the
Olympic stadium as a forklift driver and was able to plant three
fake bombs. Voulgarakis said the stadium was safe and recommended
that the journalist "read fewer detective stories."
In some cases, Greeks left Athens and foreigners canceled plans
to come because of concerns that terrorists would target the
Olympics. But those who came overwhelmingly said they felt safe.
Americans were especially worried. Among the crowded cafes of
downtown Athens, Australians, Hungarians and Mexicans draped
themselves in their national flags, but the Stars and Stripes were
notably absent amid worries that widespread opposition to the war
in Iraq would make Americans targets.
Even in the stands, the Olympics' first days were marked by
uncharacteristically subdued Americans. But as the games proceeded
without incident, U.S. flags began to appear more and more.
"The first few days our parents were laying low, and then they
started busting out those flags. By the end they were wearing red,
white and blue," said U.S. softball pitcher Jennie Finch.
"Obviously we were a little bit nervous coming over," she
said. "But sure enough, hats off to the people of Greece."
And the men in skirts?
Ron Bensimhon of Montreal, Canada, jumped off the 3-meter
springboard at the diving venue Aug. 16 wearing a tutu over tights
with blue polka dots. His motive remained unclear, but a judge
sentenced him to five months in prison for interrupting the games.
He remained free pending an appeal and promised not to do it
And on Sunday, a man in a red kilt and green vest grabbed the
marathon leader, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, and pushed him into the
crowd. Police tackled the intruder and a visibly shaken de Lima
resumed the race. He later dropped back to win the bronze medal.
"It was crazy on the course. It was bad," de Lima said. "For me,
it's very, very bad."