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Olympians weigh safety vs. glory

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

By Coral DavenportContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2004


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

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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.

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."