The security nightmare

MORE than proving to be a sports extravaganza, the Olympiad to be held in Athens in August is slowly turning into a nightmare not only for the host but to the competitors from over 200 countries as well.

MORE than proving to be a sports extravaganza, the Olympiad to be held in Athens in August is slowly turning into a nightmare not only for the host but to the competitors from over 200 countries as well. The concern is not exactly connected with the inordinate delay in getting the infrastructure ready in time but in ensuring adequate security so that the Games are not disrupted in any manner.

The focus is so much on security that almost every day there is a noticeable increase in the number of reports touching upon the efforts taken to perfect the system at all levels. As the minutes tick by towards the opening ceremony on August 13, the authorities are struggling to put in place a foolproof security apparatus.

"In this insecure world, Athens will probably be the most secure city in August 2004," commented Ms. Dora Bakoyannis, the Mayor of Athens. This perhaps underscores the threat perception to the Games from groups, the known and the unknown. "We believe whatever can be done as preparations for security, we have done it. We hope everything will go well," said the Mayor.

That over a billion US dollars are earmarked towards security in the budgetted US$ 8.5 billion for the Games underlines the priority accorded to this most important aspect. A huge contingent of 70,000 military and police personnel will take position long before the athletes arrive in Athens. The budget for security is at least four times more than what the Aussies spent while hosting the Sydney Olympiad in 2000.

From the inputs available so far, it is clear the Athens Olympic Games Organising Committee (ATHOC 2004) has gone about its work in a very professional way. By roping in the renowned police officer, Peter Ryan, the security expert for the Sydney Olympiad, the Games committee has established a mode of continuity in putting a well-oiled system in place. But the threat perception for mega events has undergone a tremendous change since 9/11, and no system, however sophisticated in concept and content, can be reckoned as foolproof.

What has shaken the confidence however is the recent bombings that rocked Athens. Although the local Government dismissed the attack as insignificant — engineered by domestic radical groups which want to make their presence felt — there is genuine fear of international terrorism seeping in to disturb the Games. The Ministry of Public Order and the Olympic Games Security Division are grappling with issues which may arise out of such unpleasant incidents. Georges Voulgarakis, Minister of Public Order, has progammed to visit the neighbouring Turkey, Albania and Macedonia next month to seek their co-operation for maintaining the "highest level of vigilance and preparation."

The history of the Olympic Games is replete with conflict of ideology, even racism in some form or the other, aside from personal prejudices, but terrorism as a manifestation of danger surfaced in Munich when Israeli athletes were gunned down by Palestinian (PLO) terrorists in the Games Village in 1972. Since then, the Olympics lost a good deal of their sanctity, forcing the host countries to devote more and more of time, energy and resources to combat the invisible, often devastating, hand of terrorism.

The sheer scale of the Games has only accentuated the problem of security. Even a minor pipe-bomb blast near the Media Centre at Atlanta in 1996 triggered international concern. The authorities in Sydney for the 2000 Games feared a nuclear attack from terrorist groups and were ready to meet such an eventuality.

Small wonder therefore the security apparatus in Athens is geared to dealing with chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. An American-led consortium involving Israel, Greece and Germany, is attempting to put in place a high-powered, sophisticated system of over 1000 infra-red and high resolution cameras, 12 patrol boats, 4000 vehicles and three helicopters besides training 4000 personnel to enhance the security net.

While there is confidence that nothing has been spared in the effort to tighten the web of security for the Games, a filament of fear lingers even as terrorist attacks in different parts of the world continue to hog international attention. The Chairperson of ATHOC 2004, Ms. Gianna Angelapoulous-Daskalaki, said recently in an article, "three decades after Munich, the Olympic tradition obliges us, more than ever before to take the necessary measures for the security of the Olympic Games so that the athletes and the spectators participate in a climate of confidence and security. Greece faces this responsibility with great seriousness."

Admittedly, the youth of the world, who constitute the soul of Olympism, deserve a peaceful sports carnival at the site where the great movement was launched in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. And it is for the authorities concerned to guarantee this requirement.