Prepared as never before, Salt Lake City waits -- and hopes for best

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Olympics open Friday in a jittery world changed by terrorism and protected by a $310 million security effort unprecedented in the history of sports.

The massive, multilayered plan has a little bit of everything, from helicopters and jets to high-tech surveillance devices and a force of nearly 16,000 security workers on the ground.

What all the money and preparation can't buy, though, is a guarantee it will all work.

''We may not eliminate risk entirely because there is no such thing as an absolute fail-safe guarantee in Salt Lake City or anywhere else,'' U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Thursday.

Police found that out on the eve of the games, when a bag that appeared to contain an explosive was discovered next to a parking garage near the downtown Olympic media center.

It turned out to be nothing but some electrical wires and fuses. But the massive response by Olympic security underscored fears that it might have been a ruse designed to see what the reaction would be.

''There's some concern it was like a trial run,'' Salt Lake Police City spokesman Craig Gleason said.

A plan three years in the making gets tested right away in Friday's opening ceremony, where President Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and three other heads of state will join 55,000 fans and the world's best winter athletes in the University of Utah football stadium.

On the field, the hundreds of performers in the ceremony can get away with a mistake or two. The thousands who provide security can't.

''There is no margin for error,'' Secret Service agent Mark Camillo said. ''We don't get a second chance.''

To make sure none is needed, sniper teams will be positioned on nearby roofs and Black Hawk helicopters will hover nearby. To be extra sure, all flights in and out of Salt Lake International Airport will be halted for four hours.

Outside the stadium, spectators will shiver in the frigid air as they stand in long lines waiting to get through metal detectors under the watchful eye of National Guardsmen carrying M-16s.

Everything is in place. Nothing, it is hoped, has been left to chance.

''We're peaking at the right time,'' said David Tubbs, executive director of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.

Fifty-nine agencies make up the security force, which rivals the size of a major city police department. Nearly 16,000 security personnel -- enough to give each athlete six bodyguards -- are charged with making these games safe for athletes and the 1.5 million ticket holders.

They've got history on their side, but the horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks remains fresh in their minds.

And if something goes tragically wrong, they know people won't forget.

''All that can be done to make this a safe place has been done,'' Salt Lake Olympic chief Mitt Romney said. ''This will be a safe place. I think you can make the argument this will be the safest place on Earth for 25 days.''

Top officials say there have been no credible threats directed against the games, which will take place in a sprawling 900-square-mile area in the Salt Lake Valley and the nearby Wasatch Mountains.

Ridge repeated that on the eve of the Olympics, declaring in Washington that everything possible had been done to protect the games.

A day earlier, however, CIA Director George Tenet testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee that reports show al-Qaida is trying to reorganize and plan attacks on the United States and that these Winter Games ''fit the terrorists' interest in striking another blow within the United States that would command worldwide media attention.''

Unlike the bloody past of the Summer Olympics, there has never been a terrorist attack at the Winter Games.

But with the threat of terror, the Secret Service has employed everything from the latest in high-technology bioterrorism technology to bomb-sniffing dogs that will make daily sweeps through Olympic venues.

About the only thing they haven't figured out is how to move large numbers of people quickly through security checks. Waits of more than an hour are predicted.

''We're absolutely ready to go,'' Secret Service spokesman Mark Connolly said. ''We're looking forward for the focus to move to the games themselves, the athletes and competition and away from the security preparations.''

Security planners have tried to keep much of the protection as unobtrusive as possible. Hundreds of police will look much like ordinary spectators mingling with crowds, and cameras discreetly will keep watch on all Olympic sites.

It's hard to miss the National Guard, though, and a close look into the woods near the ski slopes will find agents walking through the snow.

That's fine with most athletes, who say they welcome all the protection they can get.

''The more F-16s I see flying around, the safer I feel,'' U.S. skier Picabo Street said.

Athletes have been warned to stay in Olympic areas and follow designated paths. Those who stay outside the village only need to dial 911 in an emergency and they will automatically be identified as an Olympic athlete in need of help.

''I've never felt safer in my life,'' said short-track speedskater Amy Peterson, in her fifth Olympics. ''I'm not the least bit worried.''

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