U.S. officials remain committed to Greece

Posted: Friday, May 07, 2004

The question hasn't come up since President Carter angered the world and his nation's athletes by keeping the U.S. Olympic team home from Moscow. Even now, there are just whispers and speculation, though they grow louder with every bombing and passing day.

Would the United States dare pull out of the Athens Games because of safety concerns?

Unlikely, but not entirely out of the question anymore, either.

''It would mean things have spiraled totally out of control,'' said Walter Purdy, a director of the Terrorism Research Center outside Washington.

Barely three months from opening ceremonies, U.S. officials say they are committed to going to Greece and remain confident Olympic organizers can protect the 500-plus Americans who will compete in the games.

Others, though, are beginning to wonder if that could change as the Summer Olympics draw closer.

''I think it's going to come down to the wire in making a huge decision whether they send the U.S. to Athens,'' said Stacy Dragila, who won gold in the pole vault at the 2000 Sydney Games. ''It's unfortunate to the athletes because we've worked so hard in training.''

The bombings Wednesday in Athens highlighted the dangers that face the Olympics despite a security plan with a price tag over $1 billion, four times the cost in Sydney. Greek officials have revised the plan dramatically in the last few months to try to ease concerns, and they have called in NATO countries to help.

Athens organizers say all athletes will be protected, and that all countries remain resolute in their intention to come. They point out that former President Bush recently wrote to the president of the organizing committee saying he will be at the games.

Americans have a right to feel more jittery than most. Some experts say the Olympics will be tough for terrorists to resist in a country with strong anti-American sentiment.

''This Olympics has the potential of enormous symbolic appeal to terrorists,'' said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at RAND, a think tank that often does work for the Pentagon.

Hoffman said the latest bombings, a series of timed blasts that caused no injuries, indicated that Greece has not been entirely successful in wiping out its homegrown terrorist groups. Those groups don't kill on a widespread basis, he said, but the fact they are still active is troubling.

''From al-Qaida's point of view it's manna from heaven because you now have another group the Greeks have to be concerned with,'' Hoffman said. ''It increases the attraction for the really more serious terrorists to take advantage of this opportunity.''

Top U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that Greece is moving too slowly in implementing security measures, although they say much progress has been made in recent months. But delays in construction will make guarding Olympic venues even more difficult.

''It's hard to figure out how you're going to secure something when it's still in the process of being built,'' Purdy said.

Most security experts say the real threat is not to athletes or Olympic sites. Terrorists could attack a hotel filled with tourists and still achieve the desired effect, Purdy said.

''Nobody remembers that in Atlanta the bombing wasn't at an Olympic venue,'' Purdy said. ''They just remember there was an Olympic bombing.''

Still, the U.S. Olympic Committee says no one in the government has mentioned anything about the possibility of not sending a team.

''We're going. We're not going to rob our athletes of the chance they've worked for years to earn,'' said Bill Martin, acting USOC president.

The International Olympic Committee doesn't seem quite as confident about the success of the games. Last month, the IOC for the first time took out a $170 million policy to protect against the cancellation of the games because of war, terrorism or earthquakes.

And on Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony before two senators met behind closed doors with terrorism officials and the U.S. Ambassador to Greece.

''We were beginning to hear a lot of concerns about the preparations and whether we should go,'' said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.

Some of those concerns came from an unusual source, former Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz. The winner of seven gold medals in 1972 told the BBC last week he could see circumstances that would force the United States to pull out.

''I would say that about six months ago it was highly unlikely,'' Spitz said, ''but each day as it goes on with current world affairs it becomes more probable than not that ongoing conversations will take place as to how important it is to put athletes in harm's way.''

Star sprinter Marion Jones said she is confident the USOC will make athletes' safety top priority.

''If they decide the athletes will be secure, if they are confident, then I will be in Athens without any concern,'' Jones said Thursday in Jamaica, where she was competing.

If the United States didn't go, it would cause serious damage to the Olympics.

The decision by Carter in 1980 to keep the U.S. team home because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan was severely criticized in the Olympic movement. The Soviets retaliated in 1984 by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics.

Nine-time gold medal sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis was one of those who had to stay home.

''Absent some clear and present danger, we should never take that course of action again,'' Lewis said. ''Our athletes have been training for much of their lives for this very special moment. Let's not take that away from them.''

Three-time judo Olympian Jimmy Pedro agreed.

''We've lost the fight for freedom if we give in,'' he said.



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