Olympics

ATHENS UNDER THE GUN

July 26 2004
Olympics

ATHENS UNDER THE GUN

July 26 2004

ATHENS UNDER THE GUN

Olympics

There’s still much to do, but Greeks, buoyed by their soccer success, have faith their $1.6-billion Olympic security plan will work, DANYLO HAWALESHKA reports

THIS COULD GET interesting, I thought. I was standing outside the unfinished Olympic Stadium in Athens, talking with two Australian tourists, when three cop cars pulled up and blocked the road. It was mid-morning, but Athens was already uncomfortably hot. Maybe 35°C, maybe more. I was asking the tourists whether they thought the Greeks could get the Games facilities completed on time, and provide sufficient security, when the police officer in charge, a fellow in his early 30s with a V-shaped torso and opaque sunglasses, got out of his car and strode purposefully toward us. He directed a machine-gun blast

of Greek at me. “Signomi, milateAglika?” I asked. (“Excuse me, do you speak English?”) He politely questioned us, and demanded identification. His colleague stood guard while he checked our identities. He came back five minutes later and told us to, in effect, get lost. “Keep moving,” he said. “You cannot stand here.”

An hour later, at another entrance to the venue, I was alone and had just taken a picture of the stadium when the same cop showed up. He asked why I was still hanging around. I told him my understanding of our first encounter was he didn’t want me to loiter, but that it was OK to walk around (it was, after all, a public road). “Don’t play word games with me,” he snarled, threatening to confiscate my film even though there were no signs prohibiting picture-taking. With his hands behind his back like a drill sergeant, he leaned forward. “If you don’t understand, we can learn you,” he said, flashing a toothy barracuda’s smile.

Touchy, but who can blame him? With the start of the Summer Games less than a month away, there’s no shortage of fingerwagging critics who wonder whether this small Mediterranean nation of 10.6 million will be ready to host the world. It isn’t simply the logistical challenge of erecting sports venues and improving rapid transit. It’s about

providing security in an insecure, post-9/11 world. But many Greeks, like Panayotis Provos, a 29-year-old agricultural engineer, have faith in their nation. “I don’t believe we will have any problem,” says Provos. “We are against war, and the Arab people know this.”

If only it were so simple. Organizers have sweated over security since the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Olympic compound and 11 Israeli athletes wound up dead. Greece’s proximity to the Middle East and the troubled Balkans raises special concerns, and its 5,000 islands, extensive coastline and a cranky power grid that failed last week add to the headaches. Security forces have been on alert since last November, when groups purportedly linked to al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in nearby Turkey that killed dozens of people. Then, in May, domestic extremists bombed an Athens police station.

“The country has done just about everything possible,” says Mary Bosi, who teaches international security at Panteion University in Athens. What’s more, she says, the Greeks have not gone at this alone. They’ve created the Olympic Advisory Group, a task force that includes counterterrorism experts from Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, and the

United States. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will provide AWACS radar surveillance aircraft, and Public Order Minister George Voulgarakis has said Greece will shoot down planes that pose a threat.

The knock against Greece is that many Olympic venues are only now approaching completion, so there won’t be time to adequately troubleshoot the elaborate and potentially buggy computer systems. At the main stadium, sun-blackened workers have finally managed to install a technologically intricate roof that had been in doubt, but much more needs to be done—a steady parade of dump trucks still kicks up enough dirt to cause a fine approximation of a desert sandstorm. The road between Athens and Marathon—on which competitors will, yes, run the marathon—is still being paved. In contrast, the rowing venue is just about done and sealed off.

It’ll all be fine, assures Regina Desfiniotou, a police major in the Ministry of Public Order’s press office. “There is a timetable for everything,” Desfiniotou says with the help of a translator, “and we are on schedule for the time being.” She’s confident in the safety shield being erected around the Games— at $1.6 billion, a Games record, Greece’s security budget ought to buy a lot of protection. “Whatever is humanly possible to predict has been predicted,” claims Desfiniotou. “We have examined and considered

more than 200 extreme-case scenarios.” Exercises to test security teams for radiological, biological and chemical threats have been successfully run, Desfiniotou says. As of July 1, Greece entered a heightened security phase, when 11,000 personnel—including police, armed forces and firefighters— took up their posts at the various Olympic installations and curtailed public access. The balance of the 70,000-strong force is still being

THE surveillance cameras raise concerns. ‘They can watch people,’ says Kanellopoulou,

‘and you have no choice.’

deployed. Extra police now patrol busy downtown districts, the teaming ports, and the frequently packed transit system. “There are going to be 70,000 armed officers providing protection,” says RCMP Insp. Louis Lahaie, the liaison officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee and Sports Canada in Athens. “They already spent three times what Sydney cost—so far. I have full confidence.” The heavily guarded venues are likely safe, but what about so-called soft targets? There are, for example, dumpsters the size of freezers scattered throughout Athens—it would seem to be almost child’s play to plant a

bomb. Desfiniotou maintains that’s been covered off, too, although she won’t say how. “We will do something,” she says, “but our approach is we should not disclose or advertise the measures we intend to take for certain things.”

A handful of journalists have sneaked onto Olympic construction sites in recent months and written articles about lax security. Greek authorities have responded by, in essence, dismissing the breaches with a “What do you expect? We’re not ready yet.” One journalist, who asked Maclean’s to withhold his name, presented himself to a guard at the main gate of the Olympic $tadium in early June. The reporter had a pass, but it was for entry the next day, he says, a fact the guard missed. “He didn’t even get off his chair,” says the writer, who entered the site, unescorted, with a large bag and camera. He wandered about, taking pictures, he says, before two guards stopped him and politely but firmly asked him to leave. He kept his film. “If I had a truck,” he says, “I think I could have gotten in.”

We’ll never know, but that seems like a stretch, given Joanna Kourela’s experience at the same location only a week later. Kourela, a TV journalist for German and Austrian news outlets, and her cameraman were filming the stadium interior, as per her permit. “I wanted to film more, but they said stop and called in their boss,” recalls

Kourela. “He was there in two minutes.” The supervisor denied her request to film the extra footage.

My own experience was mixed. On one hand, I bumped heads with the Athenian cop. On the other, I easily could have walked into an adjoining building at the same venue. While two guards stood at the front entrance of the two-storey apartment complex, a gaping hole in the chain-link fence and a wideopen side door made it possible to stroll right in. When I questioned Desfiniotou about this the next day, she claimed that one of the many security cameras would have spotted me had I chosen to enter illegally. “It’s certain you would have been seen,” she says. “You don’t have to worry.”

There are, officials say, 1,577 surveillance cameras in Athens: 1,026 at Olympic venues, and another 551 along busy streets. They can zoom in on individuals, pick up sound (including conversations) and are equipped with megaphones to broadcast emergency instructions. Some Athenians, like Yanna Kanellopoulou, a 27-year-old actress, think the cameras are a necessary evil, but they raise troubling privacy concerns. “For me, it’s dangerous,” she says. “They can watch people and you have no choice.”

How things change. Dick Pound, an International Olympic Committee member who was on the Canadian swim team at the 1960 Games in Rome, recalls the proverbial good old days, when the only security needed “was to keep the boys out of the girls’ village.” Those innocent times might as well be ancient history to the Greeks, but somehow, in the post-Euro 2004 euphoria, they now believe they can do anything. Desfiniotou notes security forces have already begun sweeping some Olympic venues for explosives. And Pound, in the past one of the Athens organization’s loudest critics, offers an equivocal vote of support. “I think we can have a pretty high degree of confidence,” he says, “but nothing’s perfect.”

Maria Theodoriti, a 43-year-old taxi driver sitting behind the wheel of her yellow cab, has her Jackie-0 sunglasses propped atop her head to hold back her shoulder-length, bottle-blond hair. Not to worry, she says. “We are,” she notes, “people of the last minute.” That’s all well and good, but when it comes to security, it’s not enough to simply tell the world to chill. fffl

KEN MACQUEEN