George DiazOrlando Sentinel, a Tribune Co. newspaper
SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah welcomes the world with open arms and a warm embrace this week. Just don't mind those National Guard troops, German shepherds and F-16s buzzing overhead.
The 2002 Winter Games will stage its eclectic smorgasbord of sports for the next two weeks under an unprecedented and ominous shadow of security that will touch everyone who steps on Olympic soil.
A sporting spectacle that beckons for peace in the world will enlist the help of sniper and SWAT teams, military guards toting M-16s, and Air Force fighter jets to ensure the five Olympic rings are not stained in blood. The events of Sept. 11 drastically increased the size of the security envelope during the Olympics, which begin with Friday's opening ceremonies before a crowd of 52,000 spectators, including President Bush.
"There are no guarantees in the world of counterterrorism," said Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee. "There is no possibility of zero risk."
Given those circumstances, security will affect spectators before they land in Salt Lake City. Passengers on flights will be asked to stay in their seats during the last half-hour of their flights, or risk the plane getting diverted. Spectators will go through metal detectors at every one of the 15 Olympic venues and will be asked not to bring backpacks or metal objects that will cause delays in security screenings. Organizing officials are asking spectators to allow lots of travel time to the Olympic venues because of traffic and security issues. Officials estimate it could take as long as four hours to travel from downtown Salt Lake City to Park City, a drive that normally takes about 45 minutes.
And that's if it doesn't snow.
Travel times aren't the only thing on the rise, either. Fans attending the games will have to watch their wallets. Prices soared this week in downtown Salt Lake City.
A pint of beer almost doubled to $6.25 at the Port 'O Call restaurant.
The Metropolitan switched Wednesday to standard dinner specials for $95 a person -- triple its most expensive entree.
A downtown parking garage is boosting its day rate to $30 from $5.
While Salt Lake organizers have discouraged price gouging, Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce President Larry Mankin makes no apology for the dramatic price increases.
"Free enterprise is a wonderful thing," Mankin said. "You can charge what the market will pay. Isn't this a great country?"
Not everyone will leave broke. About 2,550 athletes from 77 countries and an estimated 1.6 million spectators are expected here for 17 days of sports -- including biathlon, curling and bobsled -- that don't usually pop into America's consciousness unless there are Olympic rings attached to the story.
The United States Olympic Committee contingent of 211 athletes heads a delegation of 437 that has set a goal of winning 20 medals in Salt Lake City -- seven more than the best U.S. performance in any Winter Games.
In addition to competing against the best in the world, the athletes -- and those in charge of their safety -- are also fighting the altitude. Salt Lake City features the highest Olympic venues winter athletes have faced in decades. The 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., were the latest even to come close to such elevations.
The U.S. women's hockey team, favored to bring home a gold medal, left its Lake Placid training site on Jan. 9 for a monthlong high-altitude training trip. The goal: to get ready for the Salt Lake City's 4,100 foot-high E Center and the 4,550-high Peaks Ice Arena.
At 5,725 feet high, the Soldier Hollow course is the highest world-class biathlon venue on the planet, U.S. biathlon team spokesman Jerry Kokesh said.
As figure skater Michelle Kwan, downhill queen Picabo Street and teenage short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno join others in the chase for gold, silver or bronze, they will be constantly reminded of the premium placed on security.
The center of the Olympic village includes an International Zone, a semicircular area with an outdoor stage protected by chain-link fences within seven security checkpoints.
Inside the perimeter, Australian athletes will not be allowed to open mail, and competitors from Norway have been equipped with Cipro, an antibiotic used in the treatment of anthrax exposure.
"The security is good here," said Mark Grimmette, who competed in luge doubles in 1994 and 1998. "An inconvenience? No.
"You just kind of got to go with it . . . and you just go along with that, like cattle."
Protecting the flock has a price tag of $300 million and will involve15,000 law-enforcement officers, including 7,000 federal agents, 5,000 National Guard troops, and an unspecified number of Secret Service agents dressed as volunteers or spectators.
Cameras will be taking digital face images on street corners and other popular gathering places to allow authorities to compare them to police mug shots.
There will be the obvious signs of a security presence. Security checkpoints and metal detectors will be spread throughout an area of 900 square miles. Troops will carry automatic rifles. Add guard dogs, plus 12-foot-high, 12-foot-wide and 70-foot-long sandbag walls surrounding an area in the medals plaza downtown, an area open to the public for nightly concerts and the presentation of Olympic medals to athletes.
"Welcome to my world," said a Salt Lake City Organizing Committee official working in the area. "I had a nice view of the mountains until last week."
In a world that cannot guarantee a safe haven, the Olympics are a prime target of terrorism. Precedent was set during the Munich Olympics, when Palestinian gunmen took hostages on Sept. 5, 1972, in the athletes' village. After a botched rescue effort by the Germans and a 20-hour standoff, 11 Israeli athletes, five of the Palestinians and a German policeman died at the airport.
A bomb exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Park, part of the official Olympic zone, during the 1996 Summer Olympics, killing one woman and injuring 111 others on July 27. A Turkish cameraman died of heart failure moments after the explosion.
Under a directive from Attorney General John Ashcroft, some parts of Utah's security plan were tightened last week, shortly after a hunter found a .50-caliber rifle and an ammunition box at a remote mountain site that wouldn't have a bearing on the Olympics.
"We have the best security plan that mankind can develop for this kind of event," Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said this week. "We have no choice -- we have to make the games as safe as humanly possible. We feel a sense of confidence hosting the world here. . . . We have an opportunity to heal and demonstrate our commitment to move forward."
Yet with every step, there seems to be a security issue.
A French television crew that jokingly offered a suggestion to speed up the security line at the media center was given an icy glare from a Secret Service agent, who placed a pair of handcuffs on the table. Another journalist reportedly had to drink an unopened container of orange juice before he was allowed access into the media center. There is a 5-foot chain link fence surrounding the perimeter of the media center in downtown Salt Lake City.
"I find it kind of strange to go off to the men's room and find myself bookended on either side by Army men with M-16 rifles hanging at their side," said Dick Ebersol, executive producer of NBC Sports. "It's a whole new way of coming to a major sports event in the United States."
NBC -- airing the Olympics on prime time for the next two weeks -- will undoubtedly join the media frenzy in its focus on security, but the events should provide a patriotic pause for the first Winter Games staged on American soil since 1980.
The skater Kwan is graceful, athletic and primed to win Olympic gold after a disappointing performance in the 1998 Games in Nagano. Speed skater Ohno could become the marquee name for these games, as he tries to win gold in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the 5,000-meter relay. The U.S. women's hockey team -- undefeated in 31 games on a pre-Olympic tour -- is expected to snatch its gold medal after winning the inaugural Olympic tournament in 1998.
Locally, Central Florida will have a rooting interest in speed skater Derek Parra, whose wife, Tiffany, and newborn daughter live in Orlando, and Garrett Hines, a participant in the four-man bobsled who lives with his wife, Ileana, in Sanford. Hines is trying to become the first black to win a gold medal in the Winter Games.
All of them will wrap themselves in red, white and blue, embracing their home-court advantage with the sobering perspective that Sept. 11 brought into our lives.
"There's going to be a lot of patriotism and there's going to be a lot of flags at the Olympics," U.S. aerials team member Eric Bergoust said. "But I think as a country and as athletes we don't want to get too caught up in 'We're the best because we're Americans.'
"I think we also need to try and also celebrate just the coming together of all humanity and everybody internationally."
Wire services were used in compiling this report. George Diaz can be reached at email@example.com.