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Safety dance

Is Athens ready with the Summer Games on the horizon?


You think IOC pooh-bahs are tough on cities, pressuring potential Olympic hosts to jump through hoops? You think pressure is hell on athletes who train four years in hopes of getting their ticket punched to the Games?

Well, sports fans, imagine you’re calling the shots right now in Athens, Greece. The world is edgy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. You’re parked in an unstable part of the world, next to the Balkans. Word is just out that anti-terrorist police in your fair city have uncovered a small quantity of explosives buried near the marble stadium that served as site of the first modern Olympics.

And, oh yeah, two years from today the eyes of the word figure to focus your way as the Summer Games play your city. That’s real-life pressure. Not the stuff bugging sprinter Marion Jones or the next batch of Dream Teamers.

The World Factbook
Central Intelligence Agency
Background: Greece achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829. Following the defeat of communist rebels in 1949, Greece joined NATO in 1952. A military dictatorship, which in 1967 suspended many political liberties and forced the king to flee the country, lasted seven years. Democratic elections in 1974 and a referendum created a parliamentary republic and abolished the monarchy; Greece joined the European Community or EC in 1981 (which became the EU in 1992).

Location: Southern Europe, bordering the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, between Albania and Turkey.

Area comparative: Slightly smaller than Alabama.

Border countries: Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria,   Turkey. Terrain: Mostly mountains with ranges extending into the sea as peninsulas or chains of islands. Natural hazards: Severe earthquakes.

Environmental current issues: Air pollution; water pollution.

Disputes international: Complex maritime, air and territorial disputes with Turkey in Aegean Sea; Cyprus question with Turkey; dispute with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia over its name.

Illicit drugs: A gateway to Europe for traffickers smuggling cannabis and heroin from the Middle East and Southwest Asia to the West and precursor chemicals to the East; some South American cocaine transits or is consumed in Greece.

That’s why the Athens organizing committee has tagged security as its top priority, signed security agreements with a slew of countries -- including the U.S. and Great Britain -- and marshaled a 50,000-member security team to work the Games.

After an official visit to Athens in June, Ambassador Francis X. Taylor came away feeling confident that the Greeks will have their act together. That’s a coveted endorsement because Taylor heads the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism. And he well knows the inviting target the Games pose.

“We’re very much concerned as a world community about the threat of terrorism in light of 9/11,’’ Taylor says. “Certainly, the Olympics are a major international event that those who would wish harm to the Greeks or to the international community at-large would probably consider for action. So we must be concerned and in our planning take into account that that could be something that bad people could be thinking about.’’

Much has been made of threats shadowing the Games since the deadly Palestinian terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Games. History, of course, also reminds us of the late-night bombing at Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Now comes Athens. The idea of the Games returning to their birthplace has always been a dicey subject. Never more so than when IOC officials balked at awarding the Centennial Games in 1996 to Athens, questioning whether Greek leaders possessed the gumption to successfully pull off the Games.

One of the concerns was safety.

And doubts continue to be cast by the international press, despite what appears to be a strong effort by the Greeks to bolster security. “Our answer to criticism is our actual work,’’ says Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens organizing committee.

OK, money ($600 million is the widely reported figure) and manpower are being thrown at security (not to mention huge helpful hands from the Americans and Brits), but how risky a site is Athens in today’s climate? Ask two security experts and you’ll likely hear conflicting answers.

The latest U.S. State Department advisory on Greece reads: “The potential for terrorist activities against U.S. and commercial interests remains high.’’ Then, the very next sentence notes of there being no specific threats against American tourists.

Great, go check out the Games. Just don’t make it a business junket, I suppose.

But for a variety of reasons, security is a much bigger issue than it has been at recent Summer Games in places like Barcelona, Atlanta and even Sydney.

“Well, the security in Greece has been suspect for a considerable amount of time, including airport security,’’ offers William Waugh Jr., a bioterrorism expert at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “The Athens airport has been on the list of places that are not really considered secure. It’s had planes hijacked and there has been some suspicion off and on that bombs have been put on at that airport, because it is easier to access.

“It is sort of an unstable part of the world. You have its proximity to the Balkans. And for centuries it has sort of been a passage way for the Middle East.’’

A Washington-based international security expert, who asked not to be identified, begs to differ on a couple points. First, he doesn’t think security in Greece lags far behind what we have in the U.S. And secondly, he suggests we remember that not one, but four commercial airliners were hijacked in this country last Sept. 11.

Having consulted on Athens Olympic security, the expert says the issues are almost identical as those for most international event. The telling difference is that Greece is not an isolated country, and thus regularly has a large number of foreign nationals flowing across its borders.

“I don’t think its proximity to other areas changes the fact that it is a very stable democracy,’’ cautions Taylor, the State Department official. “But you know, terrorists are groups that you can’t predict. And therefore we have to work as if they could strike there, even though it is a very stable, orderly, democratic country.’’

The country’s recent zeal for security, as well as the inherent danger insider its borders, was brought home last month when authorities arrested key members of the elusive and deadly November 17 terrorist group. Greece had faced international criticism for previously allowing 27 years to pass without dealing with the terrorist group.

“We must remain vigilant,’’ warns Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the Olympic head. “The progress made towards eradicating this terrorist organization will improve the conditions for the safe staging of the Games.’’

And hopefully, it made at least one family feel a little bit better. See, one of those captured has claimed responsibility for the 1986 murder of Greek industrialist Dimitris Angelopoulos -- the uncle of the Olympic official’s husband.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for

Source: CNNSI
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