Greeks breathe sigh of relief, but wonder about bill for Olympic security

ATHENS, Greece, AP

There were Patriot missiles, citywide surveillance cameras, a chemical-sniffing blimp and a US$1.5 billion price tag. In the end, though, the biggest security breaches at these Olympics were two men in skirts.

Despite dire warnings of hijacked airplanes, dirty bombs and killer kites, the games entered their closing ceremony Sunday with no major security problems. Was that because the police operation worked, or because it was overkill?

“I think both,” said Maria Bossi, a leading Greek terrorism expert. “I think we did have an overdose of security.”

Western nations, expressing concern that Greece wasn’t doing enough to protect athletes and spectators from terrorists, pressured the host nation to strengthen its security plan in the run-up to the games. Greek officials who bristled at the criticism said the lack of problems showed that the worries were unfounded.

“During this entire time, our actions have served as a reply to the harshest of commentators,” said Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis. “We organized the games in an environment of security and discretion. This is now recognized by all.”

Greece’s 11 million people warily watched costs more than double to an unheard-of $1.5 billion. That included about 70,000 police and soldiers, and a massive array of surveillance equipment, including undersea sensors, street cameras and the sensor-laden blimp. Patriot missile launchers were visible atop a hill outside the Helliniko Sports Complex, where athletes played softball, baseball and field hockey.

With the first Olympics of the post-Sept. 11 era ending, the Greeks are left holding the check, and many are bitter.

“This was pretty much blackmail from the international community,” Bossi said. “We couldn’t do otherwise.”

But some said the money was worth it to guarantee that the Olympics were safe.

“All the money in the world is nothing,” said Mohammed al-Bana, a 42-year-old marble cutter. “I’m very happy.”

Of course, the unanswerable question is whether any terrorists’ plans were thwarted by the security blitz, or whether the games would have been fine without the extra security. Athletes — who admittedly aren’t footing the bill — said they appreciated the concern.

“All I know is that nothing happened here,” said Steven Lopez, a U.S. gold medalist in taekwondo. “It’s always better being safe than sorry.”

The prospect of a last-minute trip by Secretary of State Colin Powell prompted a small, violent demonstration downtown, but the trouble — which occurred only yards away from tourists watching the changing of the Parliament guard — remained far from Olympic venues. Other minor scuffles between police and self-proclaimed anarchists also failed to disrupt the games.

Powell canceled his trip on Saturday, with State Department officials saying he didn’t want opposition to his presence to distract from the closing ceremony.

Despite the high-tech, big-budget security measures, protection at times seemed a bit haphazard. Guards occasionally failed to check the bags of visitors at venues, and in some cases waved journalists into areas supposedly reserved for athletes.

A writer for a British tabloid claimed he got a job at the Olympic stadium as a forklift driver and was able to plant three fake bombs. Voulgarakis said the stadium was safe and recommended that the journalist “read fewer detective stories.”

In some cases, Greeks left Athens and foreigners canceled plans to come because of concerns that terrorists would target the Olympics. But those who came overwhelmingly said they felt safe.

Americans were especially worried. Among the crowded cafes of downtown Athens, Australians, Hungarians and Mexicans draped themselves in their national flags, but the Stars and Stripes were notably absent amid worries that widespread opposition to the war in Iraq would make Americans targets.

Even in the stands, the Olympics’ first days were marked by uncharacteristically subdued Americans. But as the games proceeded without incident, U.S. flags began to appear more and more.

“The first few days our parents were laying low, and then they started busting out those flags. By the end they were wearing red, white and blue,” said U.S. softball pitcher Jennie Finch.

“Obviously we were a little bit nervous coming over,” she said. “But sure enough, hats off to the people of Greece.”

And the men in skirts?

Ron Bensimhon of Montreal, Canada, jumped off the 3-meter springboard at the diving venue Aug. 16 wearing a tutu over tights with blue polka dots. His motive remained unclear, but a judge sentenced him to five months in prison for interrupting the games.

He remained free pending an appeal and promised not to do it again.

And on Sunday, a man in a red kilt and green vest grabbed the marathon leader, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, and pushed him into the crowd. Police tackled the intruder and a visibly shaken de Lima resumed the race. He later dropped back to win the bronze medal.