‘Friday the 13th’ sees the opening of the XXVIII edition of the modern Olympic Games in the Greek capital of Athens, the city which had hosted the revival of this sport festival way back in 1896.
After every edition, the Games are labelled by the President of the International Olympic Committee as ‘the greatest show on earth, and the best ever.’ The world and not solely the Organisers under the patronage of the untiring Dianna Angelopoulos Daskakali looks forward to this delicate edition. We all hope that boring speeches will emphasise the fact that ‘the Games went on without a hitch’. Following the attacks on the Twin Towers in NY three years ago, and the Madrid train station last March, the fear of yet another terrorist attack always exists.
When the Games were revived 108 years ago the major aim was to promote friendship and understanding among nations. It is ironic to think of the painstaking efforts and massive costs the Athens 2004 Organising Committee went through to plan a security programme. According to reports coming from Athens, the figure is more than USD 1.5 billion! The Games cannot be staged without a rigorous convincing security plan. Someone has to pay for protection.
The Olympic symbol - five interlocking red, blue, black, yellow and green circles on a white background - represents the continents of the world joined in harmony. At least one of the five colours is found on the flag of every country in the world. The motto, ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius,’ simply translated ‘swifter, higher, stronger’ confirms that the Games are purely a manifestation of competitive sport. The Games grew, but were twice cancelled because of war. These were the sixth edition, which was to be held in Berlin in 1916, and the 12th, which was planned to be staged in Helsinki in 1940. There were no plans for the 13th edition, as World War II was still raging.
The magnitude of the Games could be seen when comparing figures of the first edition with the forthcoming one to start on Friday. 484 athletes from 13 countries participated in the 1896 edition. In Athens one finds10,500 athletes and 5,500 officials from 202 countries. There are 21,500 accredited journalists, which include broadcasters, commentators, television crews, reporters, photographers and directors, who will cover 28 sports, 37 disciplines (a discipline is a branch of the particular sport; for example aquatic sport includes four disciplines namely swimming, synchronised swimming, diving and waterpolo), in 38 venues.
The 16-day programme which features the world’s best athletes should offer fun and spectacle. The 301 medal-giving ceremonies will see the greatest performers enjoying their moment of glory after years of sweat. There is no such thing as amateur performers these days! Their agents will have long thought of making a fat packet from existing sponsors and possible new ones seeking signatures for advertising spots.
One particular presentation, possibly the most memorable, which has been replayed on the small screen for the umpteenth time, is that of the 1968 Mexico Olympics after the 200m event. As Tommy Smith the winner in record time and third-placed John Carlos stood on the winning platform and the US anthem began, they bowed their heads and each wearing a black glove raised a clinched fist in a black power salute.
People still talk about it even after eight editions. It was a protest against racism in the United States. However the US Olympic Committee immediately sent them home for their action!
Three weeks ago, a group of white Harvard rowers who put their necks on the line to support Smith and Carlos in 1968 and who were threatened with expulsion then, organised a get-together and Tommy Smith now 60 repeated what he had said 36 years ago: “It was a cry for freedom. A prayer of solidarity with the black people.”
The history of the Games includes a few other incidents and boycotts. The worst disaster occurred during the 1972 edition in Munich, when a Palestinian terrorist attack on the Israeli team ended with 11 Israelis being killed.
It was September 5, when five terrorists of the Black September Movement entered the Olympic village by jumping a rather low fence. These were joined by three others who had obtained entry credentials. They killed two members of the Israeli team inside the village, and took nine as hostages while demanding the release and safe repatriation of 232 radicals in Israeli control. After a day of negotiations the terrorists and their blindfolded hostages were taken by two helicopters to NATO’s airfield in Firstenfeldbruck and a Lufthansa Boeing was on stand by to fly them out to Cairo. Once the helicopters landed there was massacre on the airfield. One of the helicopters was blown off and a surviving terrorist killed the hostages. A total of nine Israeli athletes, five terrorists and a German policeman were killed in the carnage.
Three terrorists who had escaped during the shootout were eventually captured but were freed by the Germans seven weeks later following a request by members of the same terrorist group, who had hijacked a Lufthansa jet and demanded their colleagues’ release.
Since then the question of security has always been high on the Games organisers’ agenda, but never more important than the forthcoming edition.
On the alert
The well-planned security arrangements in Athens involve 70,000 people. Amongst these there are 45,000 police officers and 7,000 soldiers. There are also 3,000 coast guards and 1,500 fire-fighters. Private security contractors total 3,000 while there are an additional 5,000 trained volunteers. Air and sea patrols by NATO will provide additional support. NATO has even given this operation a name: Distinguished Games. It is the first mission of NATO’s new multinational chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear task force, and will be based at Haldika in Northern Greece.
Sophisticated equipment and vehicles from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain have been made available. It is not a fighting unit but will carry out surveillance and detection. Participants may even have their own armed escorts, provided they do not enter the competition venues, or if they do, they cannot carry arms with them while inside.
A number of invited dignitaries are expected to be present at one time or other. These are people who usually know nothing much about sport but who feel that an appearance will enhance their reputation. They demand special protection arrangements. When Bush visited Italy recently he had three limousines and 35 accompanying cars flown in from the States while the staff members needed 16 hotels to accommodate them!
Foreign private bodyguards have to be accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while the Greek Minister for public order, Ghiorgios Voulgarakis confirmed recently that with the help of intelligence and 1,200 cameras spread all over Athens they can come out of the ordeal with credit.
Comments were, as usual, sought from my close collaborator, a brilliant person with rare vision and intelligence, who goes by the pen name of BABS.
“To say that the Olympic Games offer a political theatre is stating the obvious. What we have here is a most delicate operation, the details of which should be kept secret while intelligence units do their work meticulously so that all concerned are adequately protected. For the Greeks a risk free edition is more rewarding than their success in Euro 2004. They will be relieved once the Games are over without a stain. People remember the Munich Games because of the terrorists’ attack and not because of the US swimmer, Mark Spitz’s haul of a number of gold medals. It will be a real shame if the Games are marred by madness. Unity through sport is not just an attractive motto or slogan. The world awaits only a sporting spectacle with the wizard athletes running faster, jumping higher and throwing further!”
Babs added: “The costs? Such an operation, which after all is not a luxury but a plan to prevent a terror attack can hardly come cheap. It is sickening to think of all these preparations for a ‘brotherhood-of-men-sport-manifestation’; but then this is a reflection of the sad world we live in, unfortunately!”
Clever words Babs. It is pity that the terrorists do not understand such a language!
Bed hoppers’ fun
The athletes and officials need all sorts of protection. So much so that a famous firm that manufactures contraceptives will be giving 130,000 free condoms to the Olympic village residents. This amount hardly lasts a couple of days as the action is non-stop skipping, jumping and hopping in each others’ beds, relieving surplus energy as a world famous athlete once said. For most, the Games are real fun. It is not only the organisers who miss a few nights sleep.