Security at Summer Games Is Olympic Event
Police will tap new technology to protect athletes and fans
ATLANTA — Spectators at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta won't see sharpshooters crouched on roofs, tanks parked in the streets, or military troops brandishing semi-automatic weapons. But behind the scenes of the Centennial Games, the city will be as fortified as if it were preparing for an impending invasion.
Security at the Olympics has been a priority of both local and federal officials since Atlanta was awarded the event in 1990. With 2 million expected visitors, 40 heads of state, and more than 11,000 athletes - twice as many as the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles - these Olympics will be the largest international sporting event ever, posing a security challenge like no other.
That challenge has been the focus of heightened attention given the rise of major terrorist incidents in the United States: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the blast in Oklahoma City last year, which killed 168 people.
Just last week, two militia members near Macon, Ga., were arrested on charges of conspiracy and possession of unregistered explosives - pipe bombs. Though authorities deny any connection to the Olympics, the incident was close enough to Atlanta to renew concerns about radical groups, both here and abroad, that might target the city.
"Any time you have a major event like the Olympics there is a potential for terrorism," says Bill Rathburn, director of security for the Atlanta Games. "We have no information to indicate a specific threat, and we don't expect any major problems, but we're certainly prepared should anything like that occur."
Because of its size, the Atlanta Olympics will be one of the most security-conscious ever. Tens of thousands of security personnel, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the National Guard, will be deployed to deal with everything from pickpocketers to international terrorists. Officials won't divulge the cost of the mammoth operation other than to say it will total in the hundreds of millions of dollars for all the agencies involved.
For the average spectator, Atlanta won't look like a garrison, though visitors will have to walk through metal detectors and have their bags checked at venues - typical at other Olympics. Law enforcement will also be visible throughout the city in an effort to deter and prevent problems.
But behind the scenes, security takes on more James Bond-like characteristics. Sophisticated command and control centers will be located at each venue, and every law-enforcement agency will have its own center.
Federal and state agencies are staging secret drills that deal with simulated terrorist attacks ranging from a hijacked jet to the use of biological weapons. A high-tech military plane outfitted as a disaster command post will be on standby during the Games, which formally open July 19. In addition, there will be "explosive centers," where conventional bombs can be detonated or defused.
Despite the emphasis on security or talk of terrorism, some experts say media reports that terrorist attacks are more likely during the Atlanta Games are overblown.
"A lot of people out there would make you think this is Armageddon," says Neil Livingstone, who advises business and government about problems related to terrorism and security. The threat of terrorism at the Atlanta Olympics is no more an issue than at past Games, he says, and in some ways it may be less so because the event is no longer held in the context of the East-West conflict and the cold war.
"Yes, we have a lot of loony-tunes out there, and I regard militias as a serious problem," Dr. Livingstone says, "but I don't regard them as a serious threat to the games."
Today, organizers know more about how to stop potential terrorists thanks to advanced technology, a greater understanding of how terrorists operate, and practice at highly visible events.
"Over the last 20 years, people have learned a lot about how to protect a whole city and do it in a way in which you can have some confidence that there couldn't be a repeat of Munich," says Ken Degraffenreid, a professor of intelligence studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.
In 1972, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, where security was minimal. Since then, international sporting events have bristled with security. Seoul in 1988 was the extreme example of this; security was such a presence that it was almost oppressive, Livingstone says.
Advances in technology have also aided security measures and is one factor that makes Atlanta different from Los Angeles in 1984 - the last Olympics to be held in the US. Officials in Atlanta, for example, will use hundreds of closed-circuit TV cameras mounted at venues and the Olympic Village for monitoring. And officials, athletes, and others involved with the Games will get identification cards with radio-frequency chips built in so scanners can check their authenticity.
"We'll have the most sophisticated electronic security in the history of the Games," Mr. Rathburn says.