Italian Officials Prep for Games Protesters

The quiet may simply be too good to be true. Historically, Italian protesters have never given up a chance to perform on the world stage. They routinely take to the streets to demonstrate against causes and philosophies ranging from the Iraq war to capitalism to environmental degradation and corporate sponsorship. When the nation hosted the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, the antiglobalization turnout was so turbulent that hundreds were injured and one protester was killed as he hurled a propane canister at police.

So why have the Torino Olympics been so calm—at least so far? There is, after all, a contentious national election due to take place in less than two months. Italians are angry that the country still has troops in Iraq. And a string of demonstrations across the country did disrupt  the torch relay prior to the opening ceremonies on Feb. 10. But one week into the Winter Games, the protests remain limited to a few American flags burned in Torino's piazzas during Laura Bush's visit and weak graffiti puns sprayed onto Olympic banners.

Security officials fear that this may just be the lull before the storm. Italy, considered a prime terror target because of Rome’s support for Washington on Iraq, has long been on alert against attack. Tight security—or at least the expectation of tough measures—may be keeping protesting crowds away from the Games. Or it could just be that the demonstrators have been biding their time. Italy's anarchists of the moment, the seriously angry Anti-TAV movement—initially formed to protest the environmental impact of a fast-line train line between Torino and the French city of Lyons—is calling its cohorts to action. The spokeswoman for Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu has warned that anti-TAV protestors were planning to mobilize over the next few days. "There has been a call for civil disobedience," she says. "And we're taking that seriously."

Signs of tightened security are certainly visible in Rome. In the capital city’s main Termini station, officials thrice-check the trains to Torino for anything that hints of protest paraphernalia. They also say that they are troubled by the number of young passengers with no Olympic tickets in hand. A Guardia di Finanza officer checking a train headed for the Olympic city from the Termini told NEWSWEEK, "I think this calm is misleading.  It's as if we all know something is brewing, we just don't know when it's going to explode."

In Torino itself, though, the mood is more ambiguous. Security contingents were doubled for athletes from Denmark, where the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons sparked international riots. However, members of the local Muslim community—one of the largest in Italy—told the Italian press that they have been under strict surveillance and have been unable to stage protests for fear of deportation. (Last September, Italy deported the city's imam after deeming him a threat to the city's security.)

In Torino, though, controls are less rigid than expected. One experienced Olympic journalist says that security for these games is far more sloppy and inattentive than the post-September 11 contests at Salt Lake City or Athens. Another reporter told NEWSWEEK of an instance in which he did not see any security guards in the media center garage after returning from the short-track competition one midnight. "Anybody who wanted to drive in and blow up the press center could have done it without any difficulty," he said.

Nor does there seem much tension among the protesters who have shown up. Those who turned out to disrupt the opening ceremonies last Friday night were curiously subdued and seemingly mesmerized by the spectacular show they had come to heckle. Some protesters even paused to snap pictures of the giant fireworks displays above the Olympic stadium with their cell phones. And on Torino's Via Garibaldi, site of a protest planned for today, only a handful of scholarly types gathered in a quiet salon to discuss their polite distaste for the games and hand out "Olympica, Grazie non" fliers.  Down the street a lone bicyclist recruited potential protesters for a Saturday protest against the smog produced by the Games—not exactly the type of canister-wielding hothead more familiar to Italian authorities. "Maybe they are respecting the spirit of the Olympics?" mused Torino police official Cecilia Reale. Or maybe they're just waiting for the right Olympic moment.