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Fear Factor? The Athens bomb blasts raised new concerns, but athletes aren't bailing

May 17, 2004
May 17, 2004

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May 17, 2004

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Fear Factor? The Athens bomb blasts raised new concerns, but athletes aren't bailing

Twice a day Alan Culpepper trains for the 2004 Olympic marathon
on the streets and trails of his adopted hometown of Boulder,
Colo. One of the best distance runners in America for nearly a
decade, he has pointed toward the Athens race since his marathon
debut in 2002, but in a broader sense he has been preparing for
it his entire athletic life. Fear of terrorism will not dent his
resolve.

This is an article from the May 17, 2004 issue Original Layout

"My job is to be the best I can be on the day of the Olympic
marathon," the 31-year-old Culpepper said last week, after three
bombs were detonated in an Athens neighborhood exactly 100 days
before the opening ceremonies for the Games. "It takes a lot of
work and a lot of time and a lot of tough miles. If I think about
all the things I can't control, it will just chip away at my
focus. And if that happens, I'm just setting myself up for
failure."

Athletes become Olympians through the application, over many
years, of a work ethic that approaches obsession. So it was that
in the wake of the Athens explosions--which made global
headlines--athletes took notice, inventoried their emotions and
resumed training. "You might think about safety, but it's not
going to stop you from chasing your dreams," said 2000 Olympic
taekwondo gold medalist Steven Lopez of the U.S.

The three bombs--sticks of dynamite wrapped around a
timer--exploded before dawn on May 5 outside a Kallithea district
police station, destroying part of that structure and nearby cars
and shops but injuring no one. The closest Olympic venue was nine
miles away. A call warning of the blasts had been placed 45
minutes beforehand to a Greek newspaper, and no links to al-Qaeda
or any other major terrorist organization had been found at
week's end.

Officials in Greece were quick to blame the bombings on internal
extremists, whom they portrayed as small-time groups out to
embarrass the government. Greek citizens seemed to take the
explosions in stride. "It's all media hype, and those who placed
the bombs knew the journalists would bite the bait," said Nicos
Papazois, 36, who lives near the damaged area. "I don't fear for
the Games. I am sure they will be successful."

However, terrorism experts outside Greece were not so dismissive.
"This is exactly what I had worried about," says T.J. O'Connor, a
former Air Force antiterrorism expert who served in Athens during
the 1980s. "I think this is the Greeks talking the way they
always talk. They always downplay it. They downplayed November 17
[an organization responsible for dozens of acts of violence and
at least 19 killings in Greece before its leaders were arrested
in 2002] for almost 30 years. Now there's some anarchist group
that wants attention and it sees how much it has gotten. Trust
me, every other anarchist group in the world is taking notice."

One top global security consultant finds it interesting that the
Greeks see a difference between their homegrown terrorists and
international terrorists. "That's a sign of how out of touch they
are on this subject," he said. "I would guess that any victim who
is injured or dies won't see any difference." An Athens-based
terrorism expert, Mary Bossi, has estimated that at least 270
leftist or anarchist cells operate in or around the Games' host
city.

Athens organizers say that security has always been their No. 1
priority. The budget for safeguarding these Olympics is $1.2
billion, almost six times the amount spent in Sydney for the 2000
Games. More than 70,000 security personnel are expected to be in
place in August, and the job of protecting the Olympics is being
handled not by the Greeks alone, but also by a seven-nation task
force that includes the United States, Britain, France, Israel
and Germany. (Similar arrangements were also in place in Salt
Lake City.) NATO will provide air surveillance.

"I would tell athletes to definitely go," says FBI special agent
Ray Mey, a senior representative on Olympic security who has been
making regular trips to Athens for the last two years to discuss
antiterrorist plans with Greek law enforcement officials. "The
world in general is a dangerous place to travel now. But the
vigilance level will be high in Greece."

Athletes seize on such reassuring words. "I think we are going to
be the most protected people on the planet [during the
Olympics]," Australian field hockey player Katrina Powell said
last week. Adds U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, whose attempt to win
as many as eight gold medals figures to be one of the Games'
biggest stories, "It's pretty much going to be like Fort Knox
over there."

That is, if Fort Knox gets constructed in time. Work on a number
of Athens venues, including the Olympic stadium, remains
unfinished. "You can't secure something that's not built," says a
U.S. government official who has seen the Greek security plan for
the Games. "No one seems to understand that all that is linked.
The Olympic Village isn't done. The security apparatus isn't
installed. You can't make sure you have all the camera angles on
something that's not complete. You can't plan an evacuation from
a village that is not complete."

In a cramped city of four million, it is impossible to guarantee
the safety of every person in every location for the duration of
the Olympics. Security experts warn that terrorists could go
after "soft" targets, such as crowds of Western visitors, and
there are also competition sites that can't be fully protected.
"Some of the guys I serve with in the [Oregon National] Guard
have told me, 'You know, it's impossible to secure a 26-mile
marathon course,'" says Dan Browne, one of Culpepper's teammates
in that event. "I realize that, but I'm not going to live my life
in fear. I have confidence in our Olympic committee and in the
Greek organizers."

No country has threatened to pull out or suggested that the
Olympics might not take place, though the IOC recently took out a
$170 million insurance policy to cover cancellation of the Games.
Some nations have taken steps of their own to protect their
athletes. The Australian Olympic Committee, for example, will
have two Qantas jets available for the evacuation of its team.
Private security specialists will accompany the Japanese
Olympians for the first time. The U.S. team will have more than
100 federal security agents with it, and will be advised to keep
a low profile in public.

Even in the best scenario, it seems certain that some of the joy
of the Games will be dampened by the terrorist threat, replaced
by a sense of caution. "If something happens," says U.S. wrestler
Patricia Miranda, a silver medalist at last year's women's world
championships, "I can say I wasn't the idiot who was out alone at
11:30 p.m. with an American flag on my head."

SI.COM
For more coverage, including news and schedules, go to
si.com/olympics/2004.

COLOR PHOTO: JOE SONGER, BIRMINGHAM NEWS/AP Culpepper (below) has faith that a Greek-led security force willkeep athletes safe.COLOR PHOTO: GREEK PUBLIC ORDER MINISTRY/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: GREG WOOD/AFP Phelps's attempt to win as many as eight gold medals could beovershadowed.COLOR PHOTO: THANASSIS STAVRAKIS/AP (VILLAGE) The Olympic Village is still under construction, furthercomplicating security efforts.