Security, security, security

If there was ever any doubt whatsoever of the most fundamental priority for the 2004 Olympics, namely that it will be a safely conducted affair, this week’s dastardly attacks on New York and Washington have provided the rudest, but most effective, possible reminder of what that priority is, and of what is potentially at stake whenever a country or city bestrides the world stage. The sudden emergence of large-scale terrorism even – especially – in a supposedly safe country has unquestionably shaken Greece and the rest of the world out of any sense of complacency into which they might have been lulled in the approach to the Summer Games. If this week’s devastating events can possibly produce anything but the bitterest of fruits, then helping the Athens organizers provide a safe Games in three years’ time could well be part of that harvest. However benign a huge sporting festival might fundamentally be, and however friendly its hosts are with countries around the world, there is often precious little that even a massive preparatory operation can do in terms of preventing acts of random, or even orchestrated, violence amid huge crowds. It is difficult to imagine Athens or Greece being any outsider’s target either politically or physically; the Athens Tower makes an inconspicuous substitute for the World Trade Center, and Greece’s ancient ruins are, after all, already ruins; then again, rationality is not high on the list of characteristics usually attributed to perpetrators of such actions. Any such act would be aimed at the widest possible audience, and not presumably against Greece itself. Even so, you can bet your bottom drachma that the Athens 2004 organizers, and the International Olympic Committee, are already scrambling to review every last detail, every link in the security chain, both human and technological. That chain will surely be lengthening as the enormity of the attacks on New York and Washington begins to sink into the collective psyche, goads international security experts to stretch their minds and resources, and pushes planning procedures into a much higher gear. A tricky concern Two matters immediately come to mind when considering Olympics security. One is that it is by definition preventative, meaning that measures taken are precautionary and proactive if they are to stop an evil deed from being carried out. Reactions after the fact may offer succor to the injured victims, but little more. Secondly, any sophisticated security operation inevitably involves a certain tradeoff. One with a chance of making good on its aim of totally preventing such acts may well come at the expense of the relaxed and civil atmosphere that most people surely would still very much wish to associate with the Olympic Games. Indeed the whole thing would be empty without it. It is vital that any such operation not undermine the very spirit of good will that the Olympics are supposed to be all about. This offers a smaller-scale version of the same dilemma facing democratic governments in this, post-September 11, 2001 Brave New World; how do you maintain, much less reinforce, democratic liberties in civil society while also responsibly safeguarding human lives? In the context of the Olympics, it hardly chimes in with the traditional spirit of the Games to create an armed-camp atmosphere that may make spectators feel safe but still thinking more about camouflaged soldiers than world records. The balance may have just shifted decisively in the direction of yet further safety and security measures, and perhaps that is an unavoidable necessity in today’s world; but it still depends partly on how they are presented and implemented. Not the first time Large-scale security measures will hardly be inaugurated for the first time in Athens; nor will Mideast politics make themselves felt for the first time there. At Munich in 1972, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed when Palestinian gunmen seized their compound early one morning, then shot their way out of the Olympic village and to the airport, where the effort to contain the gunmen resulted in further deaths. Yet the Games went on – controversially. Montreal in 1976, particularly the athletes’ village, was an isolated compound, as spectators could get nowhere near the entrance and high fences divided players from the public. In 1996 in Atlanta, a bomb was set off in a nearby park. At Sydney last year, large-scale security threats both real and hoax, including possible nuclear sabotage, were taken with dead seriousness. Preparations for each succeeding Games have inevitably been tighter than those preceding them, not just to counter likely or even possible problems but to address even remotely conceivable incidents. We have seen this week that the irrational and the inconceivable must also, somehow, be conjured up, thought about and prepared for. And for better or worse, Athens 2004 will be the beneficiary of, but will also carry the burden for, a wholly new sheaf of precautionary measures for crowds and participants numbering in the tens of thousands. What an operation that is likely to be. One wonders what Pierre de Coubertin would have made of it. The great appeal of the Olympics is that so much athleticism is on vigorous public display. For those charged with making sure the whole operation comes off safely, however, success will be measured not in terms of what happens, but in terms of what doesn’t happen. It is a thankless and in some respects invisible task, but few would venture to argue any longer, if they ever did, that it is an easy or superfluous one.

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