Providing security at Vancouver Olympics is a daunting task

With Friday’s opening of the Winter Olympics, Canada is preparing for the biggest domestic security operation in its history -- a $900-million policing nightmare that takes in 3,860 square miles of downtown stadiums, remote woodland valleys and miles of urban waterways.

The military contingent alone will require nearly twice the 2,500 soldiers Canada has in Afghanistan. Police and contract security agents must screen up to 1.6 million ticket holders and protect 5,500 athletes and officials -- while preparing for domestic protesters, who a year ago announced preparations for “Riot 2010.”

Vancouver’s location just 30 miles from the U.S. border could elevate the threat of a terrorist attack, analysts said. U.S. authorities this week began fully staffing a $4.5-million, multi-agency Olympics Coordination Center in nearby Bellingham, Wash.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command is providing air and marine surveillance on both sides of the border, while Canadian CF-18 Hornets are prepared to intercept any unauthorized aircraft that might penetrate the tightly restricted airspace around the main Olympic sites in Vancouver and Whistler, located 62 miles away along a twisting mountain highway.

Military divers have strung floating security booms around the waterside athletes’ village and the cruise ships housing some of the 15,500 security personnel assigned to the Games. A naval destroyer and frigate will conduct surveillance patrols.

“Of the six Western countries threatened by Al Qaeda, Canada is the only one so far not to be hit. And in view of our role in Afghanistan, that can’t last forever,” said Peter St. John, a professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in terrorism and the Middle East.

St. John said the main security challenge is protecting the 15 far-flung athletic venues in a region ribboned with water, a geography not seen in other recent Winter Olympics.

The relatively small number of bridges that connect downtown Vancouver with the rest of the city could act as choke points if the area suddenly had to be evacuated, analysts said. And the ferries that ply the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland are loaded with hundreds of cars whose trunks are not regularly inspected.

“The Vancouver Games must contend with the same security challenges that all Olympic Games have faced, but all of these issues appear much more severe in the Vancouver context,” Mike Zekulin, a University of Calgary professor, wrote in an article assessing the Vancouver security risk for the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies.

The geography makes it impossible to adopt the “rings of steel” strategy that in recent Games has focused on integrating venues and providing a secure perimeter around them, the report said.

Authorities are relying on about 900 surveillance cameras, but those will be less useful for preventing attacks than for investigating them afterward, Zekulin said.

Bud Mercer, who is heading the security operation, said in an interview that Olympic organizers had received no specific threats, and the danger level was considered low. Still, he said, they have prepared based on a medium-level security risk and will be able to ramp up or down depending on what unfolds after Friday.

“We realistically have two separate theaters of operation. I’ve heard it described as 17 consecutive Super Bowls but in two locations,” Mercer said.

Authorities have banned much automobile traffic on the Sea-to-Sky Highway--the only access to Whistler--restricting most spectators to buses, a three-hour journey from Vancouver.

“Somebody asked me, what would happen if there were a mudslide or rock slide? We have had incidents that have caused us to test those plans already,” Mercer said. “Flooding, ice storms, firestorms. This is not new business for us.”

To protect the Whistler athletes’ village, which is surrounded by miles of wooded, rugged, backcountry, Canadian troops will patrol on skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles.

“We have the mobility and the skills to be the eyes, the ears and the legs of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into the backcountry,” said army Maj. Dan Thomas.

The military has deployed a high-tech surveillance system in the Whistler mountains that allows them to loft surveillance cameras and night-vision equipment 500 feet above the terrain, a system used by Canadian armed forces to detect bombs in Afghanistan.

There will be airport-style security at all Olympic events, with a private contractor handling inspections with 5,000 newly trained employees. Spectators are being advised to arrive two hours early -- three hours in the case of mountain venues -- and to bring only small bags.

In addition to the already-stepped-up security at Vancouver International Airport, general aviation flights into the city will be allowed from only 20 “gateway” airports, all but four of them in the U.S. Private planes will face rigorous searches before departure.

At the U.S. border in Washington state, a previously planned expansion increased the number of inspection booths from eight to 10 at the main crossing on Interstate 5. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has increased staffing at the border by 20%.

Though the U.S. will not have a large security presence in Canada, a diplomatic security team will operate from a base south of Vancouver to oversee protection of U.S. athletes and visitors.

The Bellingham facility will include as many as 200 agents from federal law enforcement, intelligence and customs agencies, along with their Washington state counterparts.

“We’ve planned for everything from weather-related -- what if we have a huge snowstorm, how do we keep the border open? -- to what if a chemical tanker overturned on I-5? What would we do if there was a massive migration of people out of the Vancouver area toward the United States, whether because of a terrorist attack, volcano, earthquake?” said Mike Milne, spokesman for the border protection agency.

“We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best -- which would be a very nice, quiet, peaceful Olympics.”