02/08/2002

Prepared as Never Before, Salt Lake City Waits - And Hopes for Best

by Tim Dahlberg, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Medals and guns, ski-suits and battledress.

The Winter Olympics games open Friday with a ceremony that will produce tears and cheers for millions around the world. Behind it will be an even bigger production in rehearsal for months - a massive stone-faced security effort made even stricter than usual by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Three years and dlrs 310 million in the making, the plan to protect the games gets its stiffest test right away when U.S. President George W. Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and three other undisclosed heads of state join 55,000 fans and the world's best winter athletes in the University of Utah football stadium.

On the field, the hundreds of performers in the opening ceremonies can get away with a mistake or two. The thousands who provide security can't.

"There is no margin for error," said Mark Camillo of the Secret Service. "We don't get a second chance."

Sniper teams will be positioned on nearby roofs and Black Hawk helicopters will hover nearby. To be extra sure, all flights in and out of Salt Lake International Airport will be halted for four hours.

Outside the stadium, spectators will shiver in the frigid air as they stand in long lines waiting to get through metal detectors under the watchful eye of National Guardsmen carrying M-16s.

Everything is in place. Nothing, it is hoped, has been left to chance.

"We're peaking at the right time," said David Tubbs, executive director of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.

There have been some anxious moments in the days leading up to the games ranging from intrusions into restricted airspace to a man who jumped over a security fence in the Olympic Village area.

On Thursday, a police bomb squad blew up a grocery bag filled with fuses and electrical wire in a parking garage near the downtown media center.

Authorities said there was no explosive in the bag, but that they were concerned it was intentionally left in the garage as a test of how security agencies would respond.

A total of 59 different agencies make up the security force, which rivals the size of a major city police department. More than 15,000 security personnel - enough to give each athlete six personal bodyguards - are charged with making these games safe for both athletes and the 1.5 million ticket holders.

Top officials say there have been no credible threats directed against the games, which will take place in a sprawling area of 900 square miles (2,330 square kilometers) in the Salt Lake Valley and Wasatch Mountains above.

Unlike the bloody past of the summer Olympics, there has never been a terrorist attack at the winter games.

That hasn't stopped the Secret Service from deploying everything from the latest in high-technology bioterroism technology to bomb-sniffing dogs who will take daily jaunts through Olympic venues.

"We're absolutely ready to go," Secret Service spokesman Mark Connolly said.

Security planners have tried to keep much of the protection as unobtrusive as possible. Hundreds of police will look much like ordinary spectators mingling in with crowds and cameras discreetly keep watch on all Olympic sites.

It's hard to miss the National Guard, though, and a close peek into the woods near the ski slopes will find agents on snowshoes walking through the snow.

That's fine with most athletes, who say they welcome all the protection they can get.

"The more F-16s I see flying around, the safer I feel," said U.S. skier Picabo Street.

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