Olympians weigh safety vs. glory

Athens has devoted record sums to security, but critics say the 2004 Games are still vulnerable to attack.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The realization hit two-time Olympic medalist Xeno Muller like a thunderclap.

As he rowed out in the water during last month's Olympic qualifying trials, he knew his head wasn't where it should be. Out of concern for the safety of his wife and children, he had already decided they would not be joining him this summer if he made it to the 2004 Games. But suddenly he began to think of his own security and rowed back to shore.

"I'm a dad with three children. Now that I'm a father, I look at the world differently," Mr. Muller says. "You try to think of the 'what-ifs' - what if you win a gold medal? But what if something happens and you can't come home to your family?" Within days, he announced he would not be competing in Athens this August, becoming the first US athlete to officially pull out of the Games for safety reasons.

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Greek officials say such fears are unwarranted. Over a billion dollars has been pumped into security; There will be seven security guards monitoring the games for every athlete competing in them.

Still, athletes across the globe have questioned whether they - and their families - will be safe during this year's Olympics - the first summer games to be held since 9/11, in a country situated at the sometimes volatile crossroads between Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

Just this week Greece drew sharp criticism after a European Union Council report revealed that the country has hardly implemented any of the antiterrorism legislation put in place by the EU after 9/11."Effectively, Greece is the bad boy of the EU on this," says an EU spokesman. He says that while the requirements - mostly dealing with legal processes - will not necessarily affect security during the Olympics, the report will do nothing to allay public fears.

Last week, tennis player Lindsay Davenport told wire services she may not come to the Athens Olympics because of security concerns. "It's an awkward feeling to go somewhere Americans aren't really wanted," said the top-ranked player, who took home a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

At least nine NBA players have said they'll decline invitations to play for team USA, though not all have cited security. And many athletes, like Australian spring and keirin silver medalist Jobie Dajka, are intent on competing still - but have asked their families to stay at home.

The US, Australian, and Israeli Olympic teams, among others, will be sending national security forces to protect athletes. French Olympic officials have said they are considering sending athletes home as soon as they finish competing. Last month, the Australian government issued a travel advisory to citizens planning to attend the Games. And Qantas, the Australian national airline, has pledged to stand by to fly Australian athletes back to safety in case of an attack.

Some experts say such measures may be warranted. In March, the FBI issued a warning that Al Qaeda could attack during the Games. And after the March attacks in Madrid, Europeans are more on edge. "After March 11, the threat came closer to us," says Mary Bossis, a Greek expert on terrorism and international security at Athens University. "In a sense, with the Olympics, we're inviting terrorists to prove themselves, with this great stage for worldwide coverage.... But the strongest strategic tool of terrorism is the element of surprise, which there won't be here."

Greek officials point to the extraordinary measures they have taken to protect the country during the Games, citing security as a top priority. The $1.2 billion budget is the largest Olympic security price tag ever, nearly four times that of the Sydney Games in 2000.

Greece has asked NATO to help guard international borders. There will be 70,000 security officers on duty during the Games - compared to just over 10,000 athletes. And the US company Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), which organized security for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, is installing a vast $312 million security infrastructure system, the largest ever used for a nonmilitary operation.

With the anticipation of the homecoming Olympics already marred by delays in building stadiums and infrastructure, Greek officials have also faced criticism for delays in security preparations. At a conference in Athens last week, SAIC contractors said that such a complicated system typically takes two to three years to install, including time for testing and training; Work on the Athens system began just over a year ago. It was supposed be delivered May 28, giving security personnel at least two months of hands-on experience, but officials now say it probably won't be in place for at least another month.

"Basically, what we've started here is building a whole new system. So this makes it even more complex than you would routinely see in preparations for Olympics. Most countries don't run into that - they already have an infrastructure there, and they might build a little bit onto it," says David Tubbs, the head of SAIC in Athens.

Greek officials maintain that preparations will be finished on time. "In assuming the hosting of the 2004 Olympic Games, our country has guaranteed, vis-à-vis the international community, an absolute secure and peaceful environment ... there is no margin for cutting corners or delays when dealing with Olympic security," George Voulgarakis, Greek public order minister, recently told an assembly on Olympic security.

US ambassador to Greece Thomas Miller is more cautious, but still optimistic. He calls the Olympic security preparations a constant work in progress: "Are there guarantees? No. There are no guarantees anywhere in the world today. What this is all about is reducing risk. It's getting that risk down so much and making life so difficult for terrorists that you're not going to necessarily eliminate them, but you're going to make them go somewhere else. "

And although some athletes continue to question whether to come to Athens, thousands more are still expected here this August, with their primary focus on competing for gold.

US Olympic volleyball team member Tom Hoff knows that some of his teammates have told their families not to come to Athens, but he intends to be here with his wife and parents.

"My first priority is working on the game, on bringing home a gold medal. The Olympics are always a dangerous time," he says, recalling the bombing that took place during the Atlanta Games. "But it's also why they're great. People from all over the world will be there. If they're willing to take that risk, so am I."

He pauses for a moment, and adds, "I'll still keep following the news, though. I could change my mind up to the last minute."

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