Starr Gazing: Will The Winter Olympics Be Safe?

Before he gave us the memorable monster Hannibal Lecter, author Thomas Harris wrote a chilling 1975 bestseller, "Black Sunday," about a plot by Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists to attack the Super Bowl. It was made into an equally chilling movie with Bruce Dern starring as the pilot who planned to crash a hijacked Goodyear blimp into the crowd at Miami's Orange Bowl, then to fire poisonous darts at the panicked spectators. Reviews concluded that "as unbelievable as it may sound on paper, 'Black Sunday' is wholly credible on film."

Truth is, that back in that era, in the wake of assassinations of our national leaders, urban riots, Kent State, the Munich massacre of the Israeli Olympic team, Entebbe, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, D.B. Cooper and much, much more, the "Black Sunday" scenario didn't sound unbelievable at all. And today, in the wake of Sept. 11, it not only doesn't sound unbelievable, it sounds frighteningly prescient. Indeed, while this country spends a fortune trying to assure that the events of last week can never be replicated, government officials and average citizens alike seem to sense that if another terrorist attack comes, it will likely have different tactics and targets. It's not just the huge crowds that gather for games in America, but the central place sports stands in our culture that makes the specter of terrorists targeting a major sports event all too alarmingly logical.

And no sports event looms brighter on the horizon-where the whole world is watching-than the Olympics, scheduled to be held Feb. 8-24 in Salt Lake City. The International Olympic Committee has vowed that the Games, which have only been canceled during the 20th century's two world wars, will go on. And few here doubt they should. The Salt Lake Olympics will not just stand as a symbol of this nation's spirit and resiliency; for all its corporate cant and embarrassing scandals, it remains a vital symbol of a shared international faith in values that are the very antithesis of those of the terrorists. It is the one place where, as happened in Sydney last year, athletes from South and North Korea can march-to the cheers and tears of millions-hand in hand under a unification flag.

The Olympics are, of course, no stranger to terror. In 1972 in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches died after being attacked in the Olympic village by the Black September faction of the PLO. And in Atlanta, two people were killed when a bomb exploded in the downtown Olympic plaza. While no one ever took responsibility for that blast and no arrests have been made, police believe it was the act of an antiabortion terrorist. But because of these attacks, the Olympics may be better prepared for a violent assault than virtually any other sporting event in the world. Indeed, while most of the world regarded the attack on the World Trade Center as something unimaginable, the Olympics had long ago contemplated it. An IOC spokesman said that ever since Munich, Olympic security prep has involved catastrophic scenarios, including the crashing of a plane into opening ceremonies.

We have all by now grasped the limits of our defenses everywhere-in schools, in downtown high-rises, in government offices and, obviously, in sports stadiums, too. That problem is compounded when the perpetrators are suicidal or, at the very least, not concerned with escape. But at least Salt Lake City has a serious security plan in place, one with a hefty price tag that will approach $300 million (bolstered this week by a new federal appropriation) and with manpower that will include more than 3,000 federal agents and 2,000 Utah police. Unlike at most American sporting events, metal detectors, bag searches and bomb-sniffing dogs have long been standard operating procedure at Olympics everywhere; indeed from Sarajevo to Seoul to Barcelona to Atlanta, Olympic sites have increasingly resembled armed encampments. Mitt Romney, the Salt Lake Olympics chief, told the IOC executive board Wednesday that, even in the wake of these terrorist attacks, he considered their original plan to be "very robust." And that plan is now likely to be upgraded on the side of even greater caution.

The Salt Lake Olympics will, like all its predecessors, have vulnerabilities. The most conspicuous may be the medal ceremonies, planned for a public plaza downtown so as to share the joy with as many people as possible. But Salt Lake also has some built-in defenses, too. The opening and closing ceremonies, which will attract about 55,000 athletes and spectators, will be held at night at a stadium nestled at the base of the mountains, a difficult target for any aircraft. Romney says that with only a little warning "we could just turn the lights off" and be virtually invisible against the mountain backdrop. Salt Lake is also not as diverse a community as the East Coast cities victimized by the terrorists last week. It would be very difficult, in the current climate, for an Arab or any ethnic cell to operate inconspicuously there.

While Afghanistan is one of the few nations to have been booted out of the Olympic family, even an Olympic outcast can't afford to be oblivious to the complex political equations represented in the Games. Every nation that harbors any sympathies with the Kabul government is part of the Olympic movement. If Afghanistan were seen to have countenanced an attack on the Games, it could hardly be viewed as an attack on America alone. Four countries that border Afghanistan-China, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan-plan to have athletes in Salt Lake City. All these factors contribute to the belief among some experts that if Salt Lake is targeted, the threat, as in Atlanta and Oklahoma City, is far more likely to come from homegrown terrorists.

Regardless of where the threat lies, Olympic officials will obviously not relax until the last athlete is safely home and the torch is on its circuitous route to Athens, where the Summer Olympics will be held in 2004. And that's when Olympic organizers will really start to get nervous. It's those Games in Athens, a city lagging badly in its Olympic preparations and one where terrorists have operated with virtual impunity for decades, that seem most vulnerable to the tragic scenarios we're envisioning for Salt Lake.