Winter Olympics: Rings of Steel

Salt Lake City spent millions to win the right to host next month's Winter Olympics; now it's facing one of the biggest security headaches in history. Andrew Buncombe reports from a city in the icy grip of terror
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The Independent US

In the Gardens of Eden, the snow was already piled up several feet deep, packed up tightly against the sides of the wooden houses. Gritting trucks, scattering coarse orange salt and armed with curved ploughs that swept aside the freshly fallen snow, were passing up and down the narrow, twisting roads. Every few days more heavy storms would blow in from the Wasatch mountains, bringing in fresh supplies of the powdery white stuff that has indirectly put this part of the United States at the centre of an unprecedented security operation.

Until a few weeks ago, locals in this small village, just a few miles from where the 2002 Winter Olympic downhill skiing races are to be held, were worrying that there would not be enough snow. But now, with regular downfalls, they and everyone else involved in the forthcoming Games have gone back to worrying about their previous chief concern – the threat from terrorists. Indeed, while sports fans in Britain are learning the names of home-grown medal prospects such as Alain Baxter in the slalom and RAF officer Alex Coomber in the "skeleton" luge, there are those here in Salt Lake City who fear that the 2002 Games may be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

Even before the attacks of 11 September revealed the US's soft, vulnerable underbelly, the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics presented a major challenge to those tasked with ensuring they went ahead safely and without incident. Since then, the security plan for the Games has grown into probably the most comprehensive of its kind in history. "Ever since Munich, you have to act as if the Olympics are a terrorist target," says Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organising Committee (SLOC). "We already had a high level of security. What 11 September did was to rethink the threat of airstrikes. That is the main change."

The tragic memory of the 1972 summer games in Munich has loomed large for the organisers of every subsequent event. That year, members of the pro-Palestinian Black September group took hostage members of the Israeli team. A botched rescue operation and a 20-hour stand-off left 11 athletes, five hostage-takers and a German policeman dead. The lasting impact of that incident – along with the bomb that exploded during the 1996 games in Atlanta, killing one person and injuring 111 others – has been such that Swat teams assigned to Salt Lake have even been shown One Day in September, the Oscar-winning documentary about the Munich games.

Still, it appears that the show must go on. After all, the Olympics have only been cancelled on three previous occasions – in 1916 because of the First World War, and in 1940 and 1944 because of the Second World War – so now the Swat teams are just one small aspect of a security plan that is costing an extraordinary $310m (£194m). That figure is three times more than that put in place for the much larger summer Olympics in Atlanta, and an astonishing 25 per cent of the total budget for these winter games. Romney warns that the 50,000-70,000 spectators who are expected each day will never have seen anything like it.

"The main differences between our Games and other Games are things that you won't see," he continues. "Radar cover, interceptor aircraft flying overhead, the level of intelligence; these things are invisible to the public and the athletes."

First some numbers, to get a sense of the scale of this thing. During the 17-day tournament, which starts on 8 February, the 2,500 athletes from more than 80 nations will be outnumbered four-to-one by the 10,000 professional security personnel and soldiers on duty – and these will be supplemented by several thousand other volunteers. The entire Utah National Guard will be mobilised. Athletes, along with spectators from around the world, will be asked to pass through 950 specially installed metal detectors. There will be 300 CCTV cameras in place around the city and at the various locations where the events are taking place, along with miles and miles of fencing and razor wire.

There will be sniper teams and Swat teams in place, along with boxes of antibiotics in case of biological attack.

And there will be air support. Indeed, a group of senior executives from the NBC TV network recently experienced the readiness of the F-16 interceptor fighters at first hand, when their private jet lost radio contact with air traffic controllers at Salt Lake City's international airport. "It was enormously encouraging to see how quickly and forcefully the air force responded to the unusual behaviour of our plane," said NBC Sports chairman, Dick Ebersol, perhaps with some understatement.

While spectators will be stopped from bringing in any bags or bottles to the arenas, athletes and officials will be able to access the more heavily restricted areas only after passing through biometric scanners that will match unique body markers, such as fingerprints. During the opening ceremonies at the Rice-Eccles stadium, due to be attended by President George Bush himself, there is likely to be an even greater state of alert.

Together, all these measures have combined to create a package that those in charge of the Games believe is the most comprehensive possible. "No other place in the nation during that time frame will have more security," the city's police chief, Rick Dinse, recently told the Orlando Sentinel. "If you analyse things, this is probably going to be the safest place to be."

Indeed, such is this state of readiness that even the usually inscrutable FBI professes to be happy with what has been done at Salt Lake. The bureau's director, Robert Mueller, recently visited the city and said that the security personnel were "as well-prepared and as well-trained as the athletes themselves". He added: "The preparations for the Winter Olympics have been underway for more than six years. I am confident they are sound. The plans are comprehensive and have been adjusted since 11 September."

For those who have been following the history of the Salt Lake bid, however, there is another side to all of this. Cynics in the city readily point out that, for the organisers of the Games, the events of 11 September and the subsequent interest in security have, in once sense, been something of a blessing. Because before the threat of terrorism became the overriding concern in the run-up to the Games, the main focus of public attention was the "sweeteners" scandal surrounding the way the bid was won.

That episode, which saw two Salt Lake organisers giving extravagant gifts, such as hunting rifles, free holidays and carpets, to members of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), resulted in 10 committee members being expelled in 1999 and a host of rule changes being enforced. For both the Olympic movement and a city in which 65 per cent of the population still claim to be members of the Mormon church, it was not a particularly auspicious experience.

Perhaps partly as a result of all that, and despite the disruption that will inevitably descend upon the city for the two weeks of the Olympics, most of Salt Lake's residents appear to be looking forward to the Games, keen to put the taint of scandal behind them. Romney was recently voted "Utahan of 2001" for the way he had spearheaded the preparations. ("Mitt Romney, a picture-perfect white knight, rode into Salt Lake City nearly three years ago to save an Olympics damsel, whose virtue had been sullied by bidders for her hand," read a recent editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune.)

Nathan Jones, a 40-year-old local who was sitting in one of the city's several brew-pubs with a glass of dark beer in front of him, spoke for many when he told me that the city was desperate for the games to be a success – even those who initially thought that bringing the event to Salt Lake was a bad idea. The city was too far down the line now, he thought, and as Romney had said on a previous occasion "there was no plan B". With so much money at stake, there was no way the Games could have been called off.

"I was against them to start with," explains Jones, who says he has worked in a number of jobs around Salt Lake, including a spell on a brine-shrimping vessel. "But I feel now that if we have to have the Games, then we might as well do them well."

Jennifer Jordan, an Eden resident who was braving a snowstorm to pick up her dry cleaning from a local store, is one of many such residents whose initial concern that the Games might ruin their community has been replaced by a genuine enthusiasm. "Some people are concerned, but I think most are looking forward to it," she says. "My son, who is at the University of Utah, is taking part in the opening ceremony. I am excited about it."

But still there are those who claim that whatever measures the SLOC have instigated, the Games will represent too tempting a target to terrorists. These voices say that the Salt Lake Games should have been cancelled after 11 September – and suggest that, in failing to cancel, the organisers may have been thinking less of safety than the estimated $4.5bn income that the Games are due to generate. After all, they continue, even the IOC's president, Jacques Rogge, has conceded there is no way to guarantee "100 per cent security".

The economic analyst Stephen Pace has been one of the Games's most outspoken critics since the city decided to bid for them a decade ago. "Every night we are going to have around 150,000 extra people packed into the centre of Salt Lake," he says. "I don't think it is going to be an airliner being flown into a building again, but if you think of the sort of target the Games represent in terms of the nations that have been involved in the military campaign... It's a hell of a target. I don't think there's a single Muslim nation represented in Salt Lake. It's a hell of a target." (This last claim may surprise athletes from Iran, Turkey and other Muslim countries attending the Games.)

But, over the coming weeks, as the world's athletes, their support teams, fans and the media prepare to descend on Salt Lake City, there can be few who aren't hoping that this year's events turn out to be memorable for reasons other than the ones the doom-mongers have in mind.