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Daily Telegraph

WITH a week to go before the biggest Winter Olympics in history open — and the biggest multi-sport event since September 11 — security chiefs at the Salt Lake City Games are trying hard to assure everyone that adequate safety measures are in place.

However, their assurances have served only to underline the serious nature of fears highlighted by no less an authority than John Ashcroft, the United States attorney general. Early last month, Ashcroft spent five days in Salt Lake making detailed venue-by-venue site inspections. His conclusion was chilling: that terrorists might take advantage of what he felt was inadequate security in the open areas in Salt Lake City and its surrounds, where crowds are expected to gather both before and after the events.

The Justice Department then rang the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command — the body in charge of security for the Games — and the result is that the American government are sending more security officers to the Games, which run from Feb 8-24.

Before the Ashcroft intervention the Games were meant to have 10,000 federal, state and local security personnel, including 2,000 Secret Service members, 4,000 National Guardsmen and 1,000 FBI agents, costing £220 million. Now the total could rise to 12,000.

What made the Ashcroft intervention significant was that it was a local police officer who raised the alarm. The police chief of Park City, 27 miles from Salt Lake, where the giant slalom and snowboarding events will take place, told Ashcroft he was concerned about security at a public site in Main Street.

Ashcroft’s fears caught the Salt Lake security organisers by surprise. Dave Tubbs, the executive director of UOPSC, at first tried to dismiss the matter as media hype, saying: “The issues that came up through the attorney general have already been addressed. If additional resources are available for such mass gatherings we certainly appreciate that. It is not really an Olympic venue.”

Tubbs made it clear security at such public places was not his prime concern. “Our main responsibility on a daily basis is the venues,” he said.

Yet the last time the Games came to America, in Atlanta in 1996, a terrorist outrage occurred in a public area similar to the one the Park City police chief is concerned about. A pipe bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, killing one person and injuring 111. The bomber has never been found. By coincidence, Tubbs was put in charge of that investigation by the director of the FBI.

However, some lessons of Centennial Park have been learnt. “We are looking at our large, mass-gathering areas,” Tubbs said. “We have additional police personnel there, overt and covert. If an officer sees someone carrying a back-pack who is leaning to one side, then that person is going to be asked what is in the back-pack. But nobody can guarantee that we can completely prevent that.”

The security at the Games — 70 events, involving 2,500 athletes, staged over 900 square miles — was a challenge even before September 11. After it, some of the security has had a touch of James Bond. It is one thing securing an ice-skating rink, but what do you do to prevent a terrorist attack along a two-mile ski run? Here, Secret Service agents aided by special force teams from National Guard, Forest Service Corps and backcountry Park Service Rangers will patrol the venues 24 hours a day. There will be sharpshooters on some mountain tops and alpine observations teams will be equipped with infrared night-vision goggles and thermal imagery equipment that can detect intruders by their body temperature.

Some of the roads in the city have been blocked off, soldiers with M16 assault rifles are at street corners and there is fencing around Little America, the hotel used by the International Olympic Committee. Yet despite this, the security does not entirely convince. When I went to Little America yesterday there were no checks and when a person left a bag and walked away, the alarm was not raised.

Understandably, America is jittery after September 11 but Tubbs’s reaction to a security scare at San Francisco airport on Wednesday summed up the mood of those concerned with Games security. I spoke to him just hours after a man managed to escape after he was discovered carrying explosive residue on his sandals.

Tubbs’s response was: “We are not checking into sandals. Anybody wearing sandals in 20 below is crazy. Our concern is that people who go inside the venues don’t have guns, large knifes or any kind of explosives on them. I don’t think anybody could take over the venue with a little Swiss Army knife.”

Tubbs acknowledged that in the week remaining they need to “shake down” a great many things. This includes making sure that, while the security is tight, it is not suffocating. “Olympics are about being adaptable,” Tubbs said.

Atlanta failed because the organisers were not adaptable. If Salt Lake can manage that, it could prove a winner.

© Mihir Bose

      

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