Column: Games in Athens next summer are a cause for jitters

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 8, 2003

By Barry Schweid, Associated Press

Next summer’s Olympic Games in Athens are giving a lot of people the jitters. Visions of the 1972 Munich games come to mind.

The joy of international brotherhood and friendly athletic competition was shattered in Munich when Israel’s athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists. Eleven were murdered as German security fell short.

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A quarter-century later, a pipe bomb exploded in an Atlanta park during the 1996 Olympics, causing two deaths and injuring 150, and put all of America on edge.

That was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks triggered nationwide and worldwide anxiety.

A top American counterterrorism expert says that if the Athens games were held tomorrow, Greek security would not be ready.

But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he is confident everyone will have reason to be comfortable with security arrangements by August, considering that the United States, Britain, Israel, France, Germany, Australia and Spain are pooling their expertise with the Greeks.

Another American counterterrorism official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that U.S. authorities believe adequate security will be in place by the time the games begin Aug. 13.

But the plan only will come together &uot;at the last minute. Not the way we would do business, obviously,&uot; that official said.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and Scotland Yard’s anti-terror chief, David Veness, have gone to Athens to review security plans.

Still, the comfort level dipped last week when Veness said it was impossible to rule out an al-Qaida attack in Europe.

An Associated Press poll taken in February 2002, before the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, found one-third of the public believed terrorist attacks were likely, despite heightened security.

Last month’s suicide bombings in Turkey, next door to Greece, had al-Qaida’s fingerprints and have contributed to current uneasiness.

Some 100 State Department diplomatic security personnel have been assigned to preparations for the Aug. 13-29 Athens games. And the NATO allies will be on standby. The Greeks are providing some 40,000 police. The security budget for the Olympics has been increased by 25 percent to $755 million.

The staging of the Olympics in Athens is highly symbolic.

Ancient Athens originated the Olympic games, and then in 1896 modern Greeks brought the Olympics back to life.

The 1972 Munich Olympics were a painful reminder that terrorists gain the worldwide notoriety they crave at famous sites like the World Trade Center in New York and in turning celebratory events like the Olympic Games into tragedy.

In Munich, though, the games went on, a decision that demonstrated resolve but also, some claimed, insensitivity to the plight of Israel.

The Olympics have been used to make political points even before terrorism became an issue.

In 1936, Adolf Hitler converted the Berlin games into a pageant of the German superman he was in the midst of developing.

Olympic officials gave Hitler’s anti-Semitism a vote of confidence by excluding two Jewish track stars from the games. To the Germans’ chagrin, however, the unchallenged star of the games was a black American, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals.

Politics intruded in the Melbourne games in 1956 when Hungarian athletes defected rather than return to their country, where an anti-Soviet government was being crushed by a Soviet invasion force.

And in 1980, when the Olympics were scheduled for Moscow, President Carter tried to pressure Olympic officials to cancel or relocate the games to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They turned him down, and Carter withdrew the United States.

Many countries followed his lead, and the Soviet Union retaliated with a boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

(Barry Schweid has covered diplomacy for The Associated Press for 30 years.)