They are poised, some 120 Patriot missiles -- PAC-2s and PAC-3s as they are known in the military-intelligence community -- to foil an attack on the XXVIII Olympiad. They are deployed at five sites around Greece's capital city, three in Athens, one on the island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea and another near the northern city of Thessaloniki. Two weeks before Friday's Opening Ceremonies, Air Force General Dimitris Mandilis outlined the plan of defensive action at Tatoi Air Base, 16 miles north of Athens and in close proximity to the Athletes Village.
If an airborne threat is detected, Mandilis said, and Prime Minister Costas Carmanlis "gives the order, then within 15 seconds the missiles will be in the air."
Within three seconds, the slender 17-foot missiles, equipped with a 200-pound warhead, travel at Mach 5 with an ultimate speed of Mach 10, two miles per second.
"No object," Mandilis said, "will be able to fly anywhere undetected."
Tough talk, but Greek officials desperately hope that this unprecedented $1.5 billion security effort will prevent an act of terrorism in a nervous post 9-11 world. A security and police force of 70,000 are on the ground in and around Athens -- 35,000 Greek military personnel were added to the mix last week -- to protect the expected 10,500 athletes. That's nearly 10 security personnel for every athlete.
It is a high-stakes game of chicken between Olympic organizers and terrorists bent on making a political point on the grandest of international stages. While authorities seem to have dismantled the Greece-based Revolutionary Organization Nov. 17th, there are fears that active organizations like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda will strike during the 19-day competition.
Bob Ctvrtlik, a three-time Olympic volleyball player for the United States, is one of only three on the U.S. Olympic Committee that also serve on the 124-member International Olympic Committee. Two days before he left for Athens last week, he admitted to a gnawing insecurity.
"My gut sense?" Ctvrtlik asked from Newport Beach, Calif. "Well, when you have 10,000 journalists at the Games, they have to find stories. If I'm trying to get into someone's mind, what a great spot to hit. When people are not concerned about their life, I feel you can't ever completely stop that kind of commitment."
Olympic history is strewn with political incidents, most tragically in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Games. Israel, along with six other nations, will be sending armed guards to protect its athletes. Since 1972, Shin Bet, Israel's security service, has accompanied its nation's athletes at the Olympics. The United States, at the request of the Greek government, will have 400 special forces soldiers to aid the security effort. Many of them were escorting American athletes last week at the pre-Olympic training camp on the island of Crete.
In February, two Greek government vehicles were firebombed when IOC President Jacques Rogge visited Athens. A group that called itself "Phevos and Athena," the names of the two amorphous Olympic mascots, claimed responsibility. On May 5, exactly 100 days before the Opening Ceremonies, an Athens police station was hit by three bombs.
Not only does Greece occupy a particularly volatile place in the world -- Turkey lies to the east, across the Aegean Sea, Albania is west, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Romania are to the north -- but its peninsular shape poses a great danger as well. The Washington-based Congressional Research Service made that point in an April report.
"Concern about Greece's vulnerability to penetration by international terrorist groups is partly due to the existence of countless points of entry into the country and its arguably defective border and passport controls," the CRS report said. "Greece has thousands of islands in the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean seas."
Olympic and government officials have been generally reticent to speak frankly about their security fears, but Australian Prime Minister John Howard said at the end of last month that he was concerned the country's 482-person delegation would not be adequately protected.
"I don't think anybody wants the Australian team not to go," Howard told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Perth. "I think that would be a dreadful outcome, but equally people worry about the safety of the team. I worry about their safety, I do. I cannot honestly say to you that I am certain they are going to be fully protected. I can't be certain of that.
"At the moment, we are satisfied, but I have to say I can't guarantee that there won't be an incident. It is a very awkward situation."
Kakhi Kakiasvilis is a prisoner of history -- his own, spectacular success in the previous three Olympics. So is Pyrros Dimas. Appropriately, they are both weightlifters -- appropriate, because the two Greek men will feel enormous pressure from a partisan population of 11 million in the coming days.
Each man, after a considerable layoff, is attempting to win his fourth consecutive gold medal, something only three other weightlifters have accomplished. Dimas (85 kilograms), a native of Albania, is so popular in Greece he is known only by his first name. Kakiasvilis (94 kilograms) is originally from Georgia. Still, their competitions in Atlanta in 1996 generated the second-highest rankings in the country's history. There are other Greek athletes burdened by the weight of expectation: reigning 200-meter champion Kostas Kenteris, gymnast Dimosthenis Tampakos and women's discus favorite Ekaterini Voggoli.
And yet, no one in Greece is feeling the heat of scrutiny more than Giorgos Voulgarakis.
He is not an athlete, but his performance at the Athens Olympics has worldwide implications. Voulgarakis is Greece's minister of public order and he is the man ultimately responsible for security. He was born 45 years ago in Crete. He is an economist by trade. He is married and has two daughters and two sons. He is a smooth-headed bureaucrat with an affable air -- at least in the weeks leading up to the Games.
"Everything we have done here is beyond any human imagination," Voulgarakis said two weeks ago. "It is well known we really spent more than we could afford."
Original estimates placed the bill close to $1 billion, but the current estimate is $1.5 billion -- a number that could go higher by the time the Games close. This represents more than a fifth of the expected final $7.2 billion price tag. To put those numbers in perspective, consider that Sydney's security costs were approximately $240 million, and eight years ago in Atlanta -- where a pipe bomb explosion tore into the Olympic tranquility -- the tab was closer to $2.5 million.
If the dangers are greater than ever, it must be said, so is the safety net Greece has thrown up to meet them. What are they getting for their money?
The centerpiece is the C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence), a $312 million network of 1,300 infrared and high-resolution cameras (some of them fiber-optic cables underwater in Athens' main port of Piraeus), spy vans, helicopters, and a 200-foot blimp with chemical "sniffers" that are all linked by a sophisticated communications system. However, a Greek daily newspaper reported last week that 20 percent of the images from cameras will be lost because of delays in wiring monitors and flaws in the command center.
Three NATO AWACS arrived last week at Aktio air base in northwestern Greece and will patrol the airspace above the Games. NATO will also provide a 200-person force to deal with any potential chemical or biological attacks and NATO's entire naval fleet will patrol the country's challenging borders. In recent weeks, U.S. spy planes, Air Force RC-135s and Navy EP-3s, have stepped up reconnaissance flights over the Middle East and North Africa. U.S. Customs loaned Greece two $7 million mobile X-ray scanners, which will be used to examine cars and trucks for possible guns, drugs and explosives -- perhaps the greatest fear of Athens security experts is a so-called "dirty" bomb, a mobile nuclear device.
U.S. athletes have been warned not to wear their red, white and blue uniforms outside the Olympic Village. Butterflyer Dana Kirk's perspective is typical of most athletes.
"I can only control what I can control, and that's how I swim," said Kirk, who at 20 is swimming in her first Olympics. "I'll let the security people do their work. I'll be careful not to walk on streets alone, but I'm determined to enjoy the experience."
Certainly, Ctvrtlik enjoyed his Olympic experiences as an athlete. A gifted defensive player and passer, he was on the U.S. volleyball team that won gold in 1988 and bronze in 1992. He was the captain of the 1996 squad, but his dual USOC/IOC role leaves him with even more responsibility.
"We're not trying to single-handedly fund the defense industry," Ctvrtlik said, "but at the same time, we have to do what's right. We've dedicated the resources, especially in the defense of the athletes. It's unprecedented what we're doing. As anyone who deals in this area will tell you, you can't eliminate threats, but you can go a long way toward putting the odds in your favor.
"After conversations with top defense experts in the U.S. and numerous conference calls with ambassadors of various countries overseeing their Olympic security, I don't see what else we could do."
An Olympian ideal
The mission of the Athens Olympics can be found on the official website:
To organise (sic) technically excellent Olympic Games.
To provide to the athletes, spectators, viewers and volunteers a unique Olympic experience, thus leaving behind a legacy for the Olympic Movement.
Those are the first two of nine goals listed. The s-word -- security -- is not mentioned. But will security -- or the lack of it -- be the legacy of this back-to-the-future Olympiad?
"We must stress that these measures are preventative, capable of providing security if it is necessary," said Spilio Spiliotopoulos, Greece's defense minister. "They are not capable of stripping away the substance and the idea of the Olympic Games."
Last Wednesday, only a week before the first competitions begin, a homemade bomb exploded at a toll road management company north of Athens, causing considerable damage but no injuries. Police believe a nearby electrical substation might have been the intended target. On the same day, the port of Piraeus was closed for nearly two hours when a naval minesweeper passed through the area where eight huge cruise ships, including the Queen Mary 2, will house thousands for the Games.
While construction delays have dominated the headlines in the run-up to Athens -- and, some critics say, compromised security measures -- the security operation has been engaged in war games for months. Back in March, a huge anti-terrorism drill called "Shield of Hercules" was played out in the northern cities of Thessaloniki, Patras, Iraklion and Volos. Some 400 U.S. soldiers walked through command-and-control exercises for 1,500 Greek special forces troops and other units from Britain, Germany, Israel and Canada. Among the scenarios: a plane hijacking, an attack involving weapons of mass destruction and a hostage-taking raid on the Athletes Village.
The exercise, which included the Greek Atomic Energy Committee, Civilian Aviation Authority and the Coast Guard, drew protests from anarchist and anti-globalization groups. Last week, a three-hour drill code-named "Operation Hermes" put air and ground police units through the paces with accident scenarios involving public transportation.
The concept of the shield of Hercules comes from the eighth century B.C. poet Hesiod, who described a divine shield that had "the personification of terror as its centerpiece, surrounded by Strife, Pursuit, Flight, Tumult, Panic and Slaughter." It is an appropriate metaphor for the Greek security effort.
Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis proclaimed, "Greece is absolutely ready for the Olympic Games." Karamanlis noted that the Games would send a message of peace and brotherhood -- but also signal Greece's ability to successfully stage the world's greatest athletic event.
When Greece was awarded these Olympics in 1997, it was a sentimental choice. After all, the ancient games began in one of the great cradles of civilization, and when Baron Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic ideal in 1896, Athens was his choice of venue.
If the Sept. 11 attacks had occurred before the Olympic selection process, would Athens have been the choice?
"When this was voted on, security might have been eighth, ninth, maybe 10th on the list (of priorities)," Ctvrtlik said. "The world is a very different place today. When people were voting, Athens was an emotional choice. It would have been a major consideration. This might have been the factor that worked against a vote for Athens."
As realistic about the threat of terrorism as Ctvrtlik is, he insisted that fear will not overshadow his stay in Athens.
"This is the most fortified place in the world," said Ctvrtlik, who arrived Saturday. "I'm fairly confident how it will go. I'm bringing my wife and three sons. They'll all be with me in IOC hotel, which is quite a fishbowl.
"I guess that should answer your question."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com