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No news is good news on Athens' security front

Posted: Sunday August 22, 2004 5:41PM; Updated: Sunday August 22, 2004 5:41PM
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The 17-day Olympic Games passed the halfway point this weekend, and the best news on the security front was that there was no news at all.

Despite spending $1.5 billion on security, arming 70,000 police officers and even situating batteries of Patriot missiles just outside Athens, many around the world were convinced these Olympics would be marred by tragedy.

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So far, so good.

Surprisingly, the daily briefings from security experts here continue to indicate there are no indications that an incident is imminent. More important, people here seem to be feeling safe. While that makes Olympic organizers smile, it only makes those here to protect the games even more nervous.

"Things are quiet," one international terrorism expert said. "Almost too quiet."

To their credit, the Greek hosts have done as promised and provided a significant police presence at each venue and at many of the city's famous gathering spots. No car comes close to any spot of Olympic significance without undergoing a thorough inspection, sometimes to the distress of late-running athletes and coaches.

A $350 million closed-circuit television system with cameras placed around the city has drawn the ire of many in Greece's expansive anarchist movement. But while anarchist leaders rallied against the system before the games, they haven't been present during the games to carry out their promised protests.

Even the Greek authorities have been surprised by the calm and quiet. Most were counting on some anarchist group tossing a Gazakia -- essentially a Molotov cocktail on steroids -- at one of the many Western targets in the city.

The practice is so common that it doesn't even make headlines when a Citibank ATM or a McDonald's suffers damage from the small explosives, which usually are detonated in the middle of the night to cause property damage but no personal harm. By one U.S. official's count, more than 200 Gazakias exploded in the first six months of this year.

"It is as if all the stars have lined up so far," a USOC security source said. "It is a shame that so many folks chose not to come -- families and fans -- because of all the buildup over security. Let's just hope all this goodness keeps going in our direction."

The key now is not to let overconfidence and complacency set in, according to security experts who are quick to point out that the two most prominent moments in Olympic terrorism history -- the murder of Israeli athletes in 1972 and the bombing of Centennial Plaza in Atlanta in 1996 -- both occurred in the second week of competition.

"As good as it is, we are a long way from the finish line," a U.S. corporate security executive said. "No one in our business will exhale until the flame is extinguished.

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