Security precautions going above, beyond

Olympics: `Tight but polite' is the motto for the 2002 Winter Games, where security is now a way of life.

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 07, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY -- The first Winter Olympics in 1924 had a competition called military patrol. This year, it isn't an event, but a way of life.

Everywhere you look -- and places you'd never think to look -- there are armed guards. "Tight but polite" is their watchword.

Fighter jets patrol the sky, and others are on standby at an Air Force base not far from downtown. Black Hawk helicopters hover and scoot above the city.

Chain-link fencing surrounds sites considered important: the village where the athletes live, hotels housing the "Olympic family" (Winter Games-speak for the International Olympic Committee and deep-pockets sponsors), the venues and the media center.

Venues have machines that digitally scan the faces of spectators and check them against pictures of known terrorists. The region is a sea of magnetometers -- 430 walk-through models such as the ones found at airports and 900 hand-held wands.

Thousands of volunteers, journalists and Olympic officials wear large plastic photo identification cards around their necks like license plates. The cards are seldom inspected after you clear the safety perimeter at events and have an unintended benefit: You don't have to worry about a chance encounter with someone whose name you've forgotten.

Even the Mormon Church has erected checkpoints to screen visitors before they enter Temple Square, the grounds around its headquarters.

The first real test of the system comes tomorrow night at the opening ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the University of Utah campus.

A crowd of 52,000, including President Bush, is expected, with an estimated 3 billion television viewers worldwide.

"We are trying to hug an elephant here," said Mark Camillo of the Secret Service. "There's no room for error; there's no second chance."

Spectators are being told to show up two to four hours before some events because of anticipated backups at the bag checking and magnetometer stations, called "mag and bags."

Yet, despite all the precautions, one-third of Americans surveyed in a recent national poll say an attack by terrorists is likely.

And the cost of all this security is steep: an estimated $315 million, $65 million more than the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. At the last Winter Olympics held in the United States -- 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y. -- the price tag was $25 million.

So far, there's been little grumbling, because people understand what's at stake. "No one wants another Munich," said Amy Davidson, a visitor from Toronto, referring to the 1972 terrorist attack at the Summer Games that killed 11 members of the Israeli team.

But the newly arrived foreign press isn't seeing it that way. On Monday, it peppered Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, with pointed questions about the military presence downtown.

Romney made no apologies, saying the number of armed guards is not cosmetic.

Athletes arriving at the Olympic Village seemed comfortable with their surroundings.

"It's only been one day, but things seem safe," said Ann Battelle, an 11-year veteran of the U.S. freestyle ski team.

"I'm as paranoid about these things as other people," said two-time skiing medalist Picabo Street. "If they're going to get me, they're going to get me, and there's nothing little, old me can do about it."

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