The Olympics: How Safe?

In terrorism's shadow, Athens gears up for the most security-conscious Games ever

Police with automatic weapons and guard dogs patrol a fenced-off perimeter. Fighters and AWACS surveillance planes circle overhead. Armed frogmen -- and further out, powerful warships -- guard the nearby waters. Spy cameras and motion sensors pinpoint intruders. Metal detectors and X-ray machines scan all entrants.

A summit of world leaders? No, just another round of field hockey, shot put, or ping-pong at the Athens Olympics. Whatever feats are in store at the 2004 Summer Games, the Greeks have already shattered the record for security measures. They will spend $1.2 billion -- four times what was spent by Sydney in 2000 -- with much of the money being used to turn 126 stadiums, athlete housing, and other Olympics-related facilities into virtual armed camps.

The heavy weaponry was inevitable for these Summer Games, the first since September 11. Now, with less than two months remaining until the opening ceremonies on Aug. 13, Athens officials are straining to reassure athletes, participating nations, and sports fans that the city will be as risk-free as humans can make it. Yet terrorism fears appear to be keeping some fans away, raising the embarrassing prospect of swaths of empty stands. All that led Mayor Dora Bakoyannis to take her not-to-worry road show to New York and Washington in early June, telling Americans that Athens is tanned, rested, (almost) ready -- and fortified. "The answer to terrorism must be given," she said in New York, "and it will be given by Athens." But cheerleading aside, how safe will the Olympics be?


For Greek organizers, already criticized for getting started too late on stadium construction and other preparations, security is a massive burden. When Athens won the Games in 1998, no one dreamed of the deadly terrorist attacks that lay ahead. Now organizers must walk a narrow line: They have to deter potential attackers and calm visitors and athletes. Yet they can't be so heavy-handed that the Olympic Village feels like Stalag 17. "We will try to keep a balance. The Games are not a military event," says Colonel Eleftherios Ikonomou of the Public Order Ministry, which oversees security preparations.

Greece has a lot riding on safe Games. Its massive investment in infrastructure such as mass transportation could hit $12 billion, or 7% of gross domestic product -- about twice original estimates. The outlays have blown a hole in the national budget: Greece's deficit hit 3.2% last year, over the 3% Maastricht Treaty limit for euro zone members, and is estimated to rise even higher this year, depending on the final cost of the Olympics.

The budget-busting will pay off only if Greece can demonstrate to the world that it is a modern country able to handle a huge management challenge. So the government is sparing no expense to create a safe Olympics. Some 41,000 police will keep an eye on sports venues as well as major hotels. An additional 10,000 Greek soldiers will provide backup, while special forces will lurk in secret locations, ready to storm buildings or defuse bombs.

No threat is too far-fetched. Patriot missiles will guard the skies. In the port of Piraeus, where more than 13,000 visitors will sleep aboard docked cruise ships, sensors on the ocean floor and armed frogmen will protect against underwater attacks. About $300 million will be spent on a surveillance and emergency communications system that includes some 1,600 Siemens closed-circuit TV cameras. The security project is led by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a $6.7 billion NASA and U.S. military contractor that has developed battlefield software. San Diego-based SAIC designed a system for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, but this one is four times as large. Other big contractors are Motorola, which is supplying a $25 million, two-way-radio system, and E Team Inc., a Los Angeles company that specializes in emergency-response software.

Organizers are even girding for cyber-terrorists. Not only have attacks increased since Sydney but so have destructive computer viruses that could scramble competition results. Paris-based Atos Origin, which will oversee information technology for the Games, has developed software that alerts technicians of aberrant traffic patterns, such as someone trying to log in with a false password too many times.


No one suggests such measures are foolproof. "We all know it's a troubled world," says Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee. As if to emphasize how hard it is to protect an open society, local anarchists have been planting homemade bombs around Athens in recent months. "These groups have been operating for years. They very rarely injure anyone. It's just that they know this is a great opportunity to scare people," says James Ker-Lindsay, director of Civilitas Research, a think tank in Cyprus.

Security preparations have been made even tougher by construction delays on many venues. Unfinished projects, for example, are holding up installation of SAIC's surveillance system. The May deadline for completion has come and gone, but builders insist it will be in place and tested by the end of June.

At least ticket and package tour sales seem to be picking up after a slow start. Most of the expensive tickets to Olympic events are gone, helping the organizing committee meet 90% of its revenue goal of $220 million. About 3 million less expensive tickets remain unsold, though, and agents estimate that 15% could still be available once the Games are under way. Officials attribute the delay to the lower purchasing power of Greeks and a cultural inclination to do things at the last moment.

There are indications, though, that Americans in particular are worried about personal safety. Many affluent fans will be staying on yachts offshore for as much as $30,000 a week, in part for security reasons, says Richard M. Copland, CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents. German travel company Dertour says it has booked 90% of the available beds on a cruise ship that will be docked in Piraeus, at more than $3,000 per person for a five-day stay. Athens "will be the safest place on earth. But people are nervous, and justly so," says Sead Dizdarevic, president of Jet Set Sports, a Far Hills (N.J.) travel-package outfit.

Of course, it's not clear if sports fans fear terrorism -- or just an explosion of their credit-card balances. Jet Set advertises rooms without event tickets beginning at about $300 per night for a budget hotel and as much as $2,900 for luxury digs. Dimitri Georgi, a retired Westinghouse Electric engineer, was shocked to find that a favorite hotel outside of Athens wanted $7,800 per night for a bungalow, albeit near a pleasant slice of Mediterranean coast. "I said: 'Hang on, I don't want to buy the place, just rent it,"' says Georgi, a native of Greece who has lived in Germany most of his life. He is waiting to see if prices come down. If they don't, Athens can always pray that terrorists will be scared off, too.

Corrections and Clarifications The graphic accompanying "How safe?" (News: Analysis & Commentary, June 28) should have shown Athens near the Saronic Gulf, not the Ionian Sea.

By Jack Ewing in Athens, with Brian Hindo and Ciro Scotti in New York

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