Greeks in spotlight as Athens security risks trouble visiting athletes
Posted: Tuesday March 9, 2004 5:54PM; Updated: Tuesday March 9, 2004 5:54PM
Performing on the Olympic stage is a tough act in and of itself. But some American athletes are also concerned that additional angst might await them this summer in Athens.
It seems not everyone is gung-ho for the Games. Most U.S. athletes aren't expecting a warm and fuzzy reception from the host Greeks. A vigilant and edgy tone is more likely to permeate the Summer Games, the first held since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The world is a scarier place that it was during the last summer Olympiad, and a strong undercurrent of anti-American sentiment isn't anything new in the ancient Greek capital.
A group calling itself "Phevos and Athena" -- the names of the Olympic mascots -- took credit a couple of weeks ago for firebombing two Greek government vehicles, saying it was a "welcome message'' to International Olympic Committee officials who were meeting in Athens to review preparations.
So if Jason Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal and the other Dream Teamers are starting to feel a little jittery, it's understandable. They need only peek across the border to Mexico, where anti-American sentiment was evident as the host team eliminated the U.S. men's soccer squad in an Olympic qualifier last month. Some of the locals took to whistling during the American anthem and booing U.S. players. Some chanted derisively, "Osama! Osama!''
NBA players are used to hearing a little heckling on the road. It's the nature of sport to cheer for the underdog and dog the favorite. But talk of terrorism is hardly akin to smack talk from smart-alecks perched behind the bench in Detroit or Philly.
You can't help feel sorry for the Greeks as they're put under the microscope. After losing out to Atlanta in a bid to host the Centennial Games in 1996, they're now forced to deal with dicey questions about keeping the world's athletes safe and concerning their country's distaste for the U.S. government.
"No, I don't think (there will be) any negative reaction,'' says Achilles Paparsenos, spokesman for the Greek Embassy in Washington. "Every Greek is excited that the best athletes in world will compete there in a peaceful, normal competition. So they will welcome them all very warmly, irrespective of where they come from. And the American athletes are very big names in world sports, so they will receive a lot of positive attention.
"Some Greeks have differences with some aspects of American foreign policy, but overall most of the Greeks have relatives who live in the U.S. and they have a lot of links with the U.S.''
Of course, "negative reaction" can have vastly different meanings. A rude reception is one thing. But there a far greater danger than heckling and derisive hissing lingers in the back of some players' minds. As O'Neal told The Associated Press, "The players are definitely concerned. It definitely sits on your mind. If you wanted to send a message to the world, what better place is there to do it?''
Its leaky borders and geographic closeness to the Middle East make Greece an appealing target for terrorists. Because of those concerns, Greek officials are pumping almost $1 billion into security efforts. Preparations for Athens have been described as resembling a semi-military operation. Surveillance aircraft will fly overhead during the Games; 90,000 Greek troops and police will patrol the capital and the country's borders; and the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet will be on standby off the coast.
The Greeks are holding a double-edged sword. While they're eager to enumerate the mind-numbing security investment they're making -- which is more than three times the amound spent at the 2000 Sydney Games -- they're not keen to acknowledge the reason they're spending the money.
They aren't taking any chances, however. A special security team will accompany American athletes to the Games. Word is they'll be advised not to wear team clothing away from their competitive venue. And the Dream Team won't arrange its own luxury accommodations this time around, but rather is working with Athens and U.S. Olympic officials to stay in a secure area, which will be made up of a dozen or so cruise ships docked in the local port.
Security will be a buzzword heard often by American athletes in the coming months. Unlike the Dream Teamers, most Olympians still have to go through a nerve-wracking selection or trial process to make their respective squads. The few already ticketed can't help wonder what kind of reception awaits them.
"The Olympic Games tends to be a little more of a coming together of all the nations, so it's different,'' says Alan Culpepper, winner of the U.S. men's marathon trials last month. "I really can't imagine a bad reaction. If it was going to be bad [in Athens], it would have been bad in Paris [at the World Championships] with all that went on last year with France. The reception was fine. Just pretty much like all the others we've gotten in other places.''
Let's hope it stays that way. No one has more riding on it than the Greeks.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.