Athens 2004

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August 29, 2004 7:22 pm

Security issues fade as Games roll smoothly to close



ATHENS, Greece - The Olympic Games had barely reached the halfway point when a stream of Greek politicians was already declaring victory for averting a long-feared terrorist incident.

By last Monday, the Ministry of Public Order had heard enough. Worried that some officials had become too cocky, the police agency abruptly issued a sweeping directive for more aggressive baggage and body searches at all sports venues.

At the end of line - having spent a record $1.5 billion, deployed 70,000 security officers and enlisted the assistance of NATO - the single greatest threat to the Games may have been broiling sun.

Despite longstanding fears that the Games might make an irresistible target, Greek officials said the 17-day event was never the subject of specific threats.

The most visible breach occurred on the Games' final day during the men's marathon, when a costumed man jumped from the crowd and grabbed the leader about 3 miles from the finish. The runner, eventual third-place finisher Vanderlei Lima of Brazil, was pushed from the road and into the crowd before police freed him and arrested the intruder. Police identified the man as Kornelious Horan, a former Catholic priest from Ireland, who arrived Sunday in Athens.

``He has been saying, `Prepare for the second coming,' `` Greek police Major Regina Desfiniotou said, adding that Horan was believed to be involved in a similar incident last year at an international auto-racing event.

Outside the venues, Greek police were tested only once when they used tear gas last week in a brief confrontation with demonstrators marching to protest the expected visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell for Sunday's closing ceremonies.

But authorities were spared another expected clash with the same group Sunday when Powell abruptly canceled his visit.

From the day Greece was selected to host the Summer Games, security preparations had become one of the most dominant issues facing local organizers.

International security authorities worried about Greece's history of domestic terrorism and its proximity to known terrorist havens in the Middle East and elsewhere. A string of terrorist attacks earlier this year only added to concerns.

The worst fears, however, seemed to dissolve at the moment the torch was lighted at Olympic Stadium.

Still, the cost of such a heavy protective blanket has weighed on Greek officials, prompting some to suggest that costs for future Olympics be shared by participating nations.

Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Pangiotis Skandalakis said the enormous costs likely would eliminate some cities and nations from competing as future hosts.

Bakoyannis said the security plan was to provide for the safety of visitors and competitors without ``creating a fortress.'' By many accounts, that effort succeeded. Games-goers described security around Athens as visible but not oppressive.

``It's very safe here for Americans,'' said Mark Robertson, 26, of Charleston, W.Va. He said he ``thought twice'' before wearing a fake tattoo of the American flag on his upper right arm, clearly visible with his sleeveless T-shirt. But he said there were no hassles.

What's more, screening at Olympics venues was unremarkable, ``like going on an airplane,'' said Robertson, 26, who works for a U.S. defense contractor on the Greek island of Crete.

Gabby Halpin, an Australian schoolteacher, said the Athens police presence seemed ``not all that serious - no sniffer dogs, and (police) are not all even armed if you look at them. They're relaxed, sitting down, playing with their cell phones.''

As she headed to Sunday's wrestling finals, Halpin, 23, confessed she ``was more worried about pickpockets than somebody blowing something up.

Malik Taimur, a lawyer from Pakistan, said the Athens Olympics ``doesn't really feel like a high-security event. I'm very comfortable here.'' He added that en route here, he was hassled by security elsewhere in Europe because of his nationality - ``searched, dog-sniffed, taken into a room in Vienna'' by police.

``It's a good thing nothing happened here,'' added Taimur, 24. ``There would be a lot more trouble for people from my region.''



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