Security earns gold in first big Olympics test

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- By the time airplanes began flying again into the Salt Lake airport, President Bush had already been safely ushered away and the Olympic flame burned above a nearly empty stadium.

An unprecedented security plan worked to near perfection in its first major test. For those protecting the Olympics, there were no opening-night jitters.

As the crowds went home from the opening ceremony Friday night, there was a quick sigh of relief and one sobering realization -- there are still a lot of Olympics left to protect.

''That was a big day, but we've still got a lot to go,'' said David Tubbs, executive director of the Olympic security force.

Security officials had been quietly confident that three years of preparation and an investment of $310 million would be enough to guard an Olympics that suddenly seemed more vulnerable after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Still, they were eager to see the complex plan meet -- and pass -- its first test. It didn't get any bigger than guarding Bush, three other heads of state and an audience of more than 50,000 on a chilly night in the Salt Lake City foothills.

''We're all breathing freely now,'' Salt Lake Olympic chief Mitt Romney said. ''Our security worked extremely well.''

The security was layered and intense outside Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium on the University of Utah campus, where teams of police peered into the windows of cars in the driveways of nearby residences and black-clad Secret Service snipers watched from the rooftop.

A few helicopters patrolled nearby skies, which were otherwise absent of planes beneath 28,000 feet because the airport was closed and airspace restricted.

Once the crowds got through metal detectors and were patted down, though, they might have been surprised by the lack of visible security inside the stadium.

That was a secondary goal of organizers, who used plainclothes officers to mingle with the crowds inside to keep the games from having a militaristic look.

''Inside, where events are taking place, the security will be much more unobtrusive,'' Secret Service agent Marc Connolly said.

If anyone at the stadium needed a reminder of why security was so intense, all they had to do was look at the tattered flag pulled out of the rubble of the World Trade Center that was solemnly held during the national anthem.

Following the terrorist attacks, officials added another $40 million to secure the Olympics. They also heightened the awareness that the games could be a prime target.

Security was so tight even the Salt Lake International Airport was closed for four hours during the opening ceremony, disrupting some 332 flights. The only trouble came when five protesters were arrested after confronting police near where Bush was expected to arrive.

''There was nothing unexpected and nothing left to chance,'' Tubbs said. ''Everything that we've spent all the time planning and having exercises for went exactly the way it should.''

What might have been most surprising was how quickly spectators heavily bundled up against the cold got through metal detectors and into the Olympic stadium.

Lines moved quickly, with some fans saying they got through security in 10 minutes or less, and others not waiting much longer.

''There weren't any serious complaints about the ability to get into the stadium,'' Tubbs said.

That continued in Saturday's first full day of competition, with spectators having only a few minutes wait at most venues to get through security.

Romney said the only backups came at the media entrances, where reporters and photographers waited on an average of 15 minutes longer.

''Changes take place with experience and we hope that times will come down,'' Romney said.

At least one Olympic medalist didn't appreciate being searched before she performed.

Russian cross-country skier Larissa Lazutina had barely finished winning a silver medal when she bitterly criticized the security checks athletes have to undergo.

''I'm at my fourth Olympics, but nobody has ever searched my personal belongings this way,'' she said. ''It's beyond my comprehension. We've come here to compete and there's nothing else on our minds. What they're doing is a terrible putdown.''

Third-place finisher Katerina Neumannova didn't share Lazutina's feelings.

''Security checks are not pleasant, but they're understandable after what happened in New York,'' she said.



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