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Security has some problems

Posted: Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Big Brother is watching, and so far Athenians don't seem to mind.

They stand on their balconies to wave at the blimp that floats lazily over the city, its cameras scouring the scene down below for any hint of danger. They snap pictures as it traces a route from the Port of Piraeus to the Olympic Village, while its sniffers monitor the air for chemicals.

Athens is spending $1.5 billion for a dizzying array of high-tech equipment designed to handle any threat to the games. NATO ships patrol the sea, while AWACS planes and Greek fighter jets scour the sky.

They might have been better served spending a few more dollars training the people on the ground.

Just a few days before the Olympics begin, the attitude of the Greeks protecting the games seems to range from laid back at best, haphazard at worst.

Blue-shirted police are everywhere, but their main function seems to be finding shade to keep out of the searing Athens sun. A half dozen of them took advantage of a large tree near the main Olympic complex on Monday to do just that.

When a colleague and I decided to see how close we could get to the Olympic stadium, only one even bothered to acknowledge our presence.

''Hi,'' he said.

Turns out, it wasn't so tough to get in the stadium where 75,000 people will watch opening ceremonies Friday night. We strolled through a few checkpoints and past the huge white steel pillars that hold up the roof to check out the seats.

Just to say we did it, we walked down and took a turn around the track.

Halfway through our personal 400 meters, we even stopped to take some pictures with a cell phone.

Media credentials are supposed to get you places the average person can't go. But on the Olympic track, just days before the start of the most heavily guarded games ever?

Try that two years ago in Salt Lake City and the closest you would have gotten was Provo.

The Greek way means doing things at the last moment, even if it is protecting the games. That's one reason workers were still pouring cement and dabbing paint at the stadium Sunday, seven years after Athens won the games.

Security is a little more important than a fresh paint job, though, and if American experts had their way all Olympic venues would have been locked down months ago to make sure no one could hide a bomb or anything else inside.

That's a little tough in Athens, where bare-chested workers were driving fork lifts and putting in walkways outside the stadium in a frantic rush to finish before the grand opening.

But the world is a dangerous place, and the Olympics are one big target. Athens not only has to be protected against any al-Qaida attacks, but also against homegrown terrorists who marked the 100-day countdown to the games by bombing a police station and warning that some Olympic visitors could be ''undesirable.''

U.S. officials were so worried about the ability of the Greeks to keep the games safe that the head of the FBI visited Athens nine months ago to privately voice his concerns.

The government responded by doubling the security budget, adding batteries of Patriot missiles to protect the Olympic athletes' village and other parts of Athens from aerial attack, and putting even more soldiers and police on duty.

Olympic chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki proclaimed Athens to have ''the most comprehensive, best-staffed and best-funded security operation in the history of the Olympic Games.''

Still, there were glitches.

While soldiers with automatic weapons patrolled the media housing village, long lines formed at the entrance. The reason? Volunteers were laboriously writing down the names of each journalist because they had no scanners to read bar codes on credentials.

In the air, though, things seemed to be going much more smoothly. Greek Air Force pilots declared themselves ready to shoot down any invading aircraft, and the 220-foot white blimp was more of a comforting sight than a big brother menace.

There's no margin for error here. One successful attack is all it will take to tarnish these games and perhaps threaten the future of the world's biggest sporting event. If $1.5 billion can't buy security, what host city can afford the price tag that will?

That sobering thought, though, wasn't weighing heavily on my mind as we walked on the Olympic track. I just wanted the first souvenir picture of the games.

Now, if I could only figure out a way to get it out of my cell phone.

Tim Dahlberg covers Olympics and security issues for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org



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