The safest place in the world during the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens may be right inside Olympic stadium where spectators and athletes will be protected by the most elaborate, most expensive security system ever built for a public event.
And yet people are staying away in droves, if advance ticket sales, hotel and other reservations are any indication.
More than half the tickets remain unsold. Tour operators report sluggish bookings and up to 6,000 of the 62,000 hotel rooms in Athens are up for grabs with just weeks to go before opening ceremonies. Fewer tourists are expected for all of the summer in Greece compared to last year, according to country tourism officials.
Olympic construction delays and terrorism concerns are being floated as the main reason for the lagging interest.
“Athens is as safe a place as it can be,” said Harry Coccossis, head of Greece’s National Tourism Organization.
The Olympic security price tag of $1.5 billion apparently means little to potential spectators “once you realize that the Olympic village, Athens, hell, the whole of Greece, has a big red bull's-eye painted on it,” a counter-terrorism expert and former C.I.A. officer hired to do consulting by Olympic officials told MSNBC.com.
Although there has been no specific threat from al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization aimed at the summer Olympics, “some experts believe that al-Qaida will be attracted to the Greek Olympics to communicate its message to an audience of billions,” says an April report on the terrorism threat to the Olympics by the Congressional Research Service, the official research arm of Congress, “to strike in the cradle of Western democracy, and to attack Western citizens and interests.”
Boots, suits, electronic eyes
There will be boots on the ground, eyes and ears all around Athens and outlying venues. “We’ll even have eyes in the sky,” said one security consultant working with the Olympic committee, referring to the blimp that will hover over Athens around the clock. The 200-foot blimp has high resolution cameras on board as well as sensitive chemical “sniffers” that will set off alarms should chemical weapons be deployed.
The Greek government will deploy 70,000 people from various parts of the military and police forces, said George Voulgarakis, Greece’s ministry of public order more commonly known as the “Olympic security czar” in the year leading up to the 2004 games.
"Our plans are very well prepared," Voulgarakis said. “We can assure the security. We can provide the security.”
“The whole country will be considered as a theater of operations,” according to an official Olympic security statement. “One hundred and twenty-six Olympic venues, twenty-eight sports and a number of other cultural events will be covered with a security umbrella.”
At the heart of that umbrella is the sophisticated command, control, communications, computers and intelligence network, dubbed C4I, from San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., that provides the real time intelligence communication capability for all Olympic security forces.
The C4I system will provide a digital, encrypted communications network that is capable of providing real-time picture, sound and data. All that will be fed by a network of more than 1,400 high resolution cameras hung on every column, every lamp post and looking into virtually every nook and cranny throughout Athens.
But the system has come under criticism already for fear that it won’t be completely installed in time for the games. The final installment of $173 million to SAIC has been put on hold as of July 11th by the Greek government.
SAIC refused to comment on the situation. A spokesman told MSNBC.com by e-mail that “unfortunately we are not doing any interviews at the present time since our men and women working on the project are extremely busy and being flooded with requests.”
Seeking to allay fears that the massive electronic security web around Athens wouldn’t be ready in time, Greek officials tested it during a three-hour drill Sunday. Code-named “Olympic Hermes” the drill tested the security network’s hardware, software and communications capabilities and involved air and ground police units. All forms of public transportation were tested as well, Greek officials said. Voulgarakis said in a newspaper interview published Sunday that the security system is fully operational and ready for the Summer Games.
More than 900 magnetic gates will be installed along with 261 X-ray machines and 520 metal detectors. Thirty-nine bomb detecting machines will be used and with $500,000 from the U.S., the International Atomic Energy Association will monitor radiation detectors.
All Olympic vehicles will have global positioning system devices installed enabling Olympic officials to track each car or truck on a minute-to-minute basis. The system can tell how fast a particular car or truck is going and whether the driver stopped off for a 15-minute espresso break.
The Olympic Village itself will resemble nothing short of a fortress. The village, located in northern Athens, will be ringed by a double layer of steel-reinforced walls to deter would-be suicide bombers.
The port of Piraeus presents a particularly thorny security problem. The port will be home to what amounts to a floating hotel village comprised of visiting yachts. And not just any yachts: these will be the high rollers — foreign dignitaries and the like. Olympic officials claim the port will host one of the largest gatherings of cruise ships in the world during the Olympics.
The port has been wired with a fiber-optic network of cameras, sensors and other intelligence-gathering devices. It will be guarded around the clock by a contingent of 2,500 persons from the Greek Navy and Special Forces teams.
About 41,000 police will keep watch over the warp and woof of daily Olympic life as well as keeping watch over hotels, Greek officials said. An additional 20,000 military personnel will be deployed to the games as well.
Greeks: No guns for you
The fact that all protective forces will be in the hands of the Greeks caused a bit of a diplomatic dust-up when Greek officials insisted that foreign agents wouldn’t be allowed to carry firearms. Voulgarakis said guards accompanying national leaders to the games would be allowed to carry guns, but this was not related to the Olympics and was already covered by existing international protocols.
“Leaders, presidents, kings, etc., are one thing and athletes are another. Greece is responsible for the protection and guarding of athletes,” Voulgarakis said.
Nations fearing terrorist attacks have pressed Greece to allow special security details. The United States plans to send nearly 200 personnel to Greece, including State Department Diplomatic Security and FBI agents. Special U.S. anti-terrorist teams also will be there under the command of NATO, which is planning aerial patrols and other support.
At Greece's request, the U.S. is sending 400 Special Forces soldiers to help protect the games, a U.S. counterterrorism official said. It is not yet decided whether the armed soldiers would be in Athens, the nearby island of Crete or remain on alert in Europe, where they are based in Germany.
In addition, NATO has agreed to deploy surveillance planes, maritime patrols and a force to deal with potential chemical and biological attacks. An eight-ship NATO fleet will patrol Aegean international waters, south of the island of Crete. Greek military vessels will guard Greek national waters.
Greek officials insist that the entire system will be up and running in time for the games, turning Greece into a “security superpower” in the words of Voulgarakis. Olympic venues around Athens went into “lock down” or advanced security mode on July 1st.
And the security system has already returned dividends. A police helicopter accompanying the journey of the official Olympic flame as it made its way to Athens on the final leg of its around-the-world journey, spotted a secret marijuana farm on the island of Crete.
The police investigated and found entire cannabis farms in remote areas on Crete; a total of about 7,000 plants were eventually uprooted by Greek police.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.