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Fear Factor?
Tim Layden
May 17, 2004
The Athens bomb blasts raised new concerns, but athletes aren't bailing
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May 17, 2004

Fear Factor?

The Athens bomb blasts raised new concerns, but athletes aren't bailing

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Twice a day Alan Culpepper trains for the 2004 Olympic marathon on the streets and trails of his adopted hometown of Boulder, Colo. One of the best distance runners in America for nearly a decade, he has pointed toward the Athens race since his marathon debut in 2002, but in a broader sense he has been preparing for it his entire athletic life. Fear of terrorism will not dent his resolve.

"My job is to be the best I can be on the day of the Olympic marathon," the 31-year-old Culpepper said last week, after three bombs were detonated in an Athens neighborhood exactly 100 days before the opening ceremonies for the Games. "It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of tough miles. If I think about all the things I can't control, it will just chip away at my focus. And if that happens, I'm just setting myself up for failure."

Athletes become Olympians through the application, over many years, of a work ethic that approaches obsession. So it was that in the wake of the Athens explosions—which made global headlines—athletes took notice, inventoried their emotions and resumed training. "You might think about safety, but it's not going to stop you from chasing your dreams," said 2000 Olympic taekwondo gold medalist Steven Lopez of the U.S.

The three bombs—sticks of dynamite wrapped around a timer-exploded before dawn on May 5 outside a Kallithea district police station, destroying part of that structure and nearby cars and shops but injuring no one. The closest Olympic venue was nine miles away. A call warning of the blasts had been placed 45 minutes beforehand to a Greek newspaper, and no links to al-Qaeda or any other major terrorist organization had been found at week's end.

Officials in Greece were quick to blame the bombings on internal extremists, whom they portrayed as small-time groups out to embarrass the government. Greek citizens seemed to take the explosions in stride. "It's all media hype, and those who placed the bombs knew the journalists would bite the bait," said Nicos Papazois, 36, who lives near the damaged area. "I don't fear for the Games. I am sure they will be successful."

However, terrorism experts outside Greece were not so dismissive. "This is exactly what I had worried about," says T.J. O'Connor, a former Air Force antiterrorism expert who served in Athens during the 1980s. "I think this is the Greeks talking the way they always talk. They always downplay it. They downplayed November 17 [an organization responsible for dozens of acts of violence and at least 19 killings in Greece before its leaders were arrested in 2002] for almost 30 years. Now there's some anarchist group that wants attention and it sees how much it has gotten. Trust me, every other anarchist group in the world is taking notice."

One top global security consultant finds it interesting that the Greeks see a difference between their homegrown terrorists and international terrorists. "That's a sign of how out of touch they are on this subject," he said. "I would guess that any victim who is injured or dies won't see any difference." An Athens-based terrorism expert, Mary Bossi, has estimated that at least 270 leftist or anarchist cells operate in or around the Games' host city.

Athens organizers say that security has always been their No. 1 priority. The budget for safeguarding these Olympics is $1.2 billion, almost six times the amount spent in Sydney for the 2000 Games. More than 70,000 security personnel are expected to be in place in August, and the job of protecting the Olympics is being handled not by the Greeks alone, but also by a seven-nation task force that includes the United States, Britain, France, Israel and Germany. (Similar arrangements were also in place in Salt Lake City.) NATO will provide air surveillance.

"I would tell athletes to definitely go," says FBI special agent Ray Mey, a senior representative on Olympic security who has been making regular trips to Athens for the last two years to discuss antiterrorist plans with Greek law enforcement officials. "The world in general is a dangerous place to travel now. But the vigilance level will be high in Greece."

Athletes seize on such reassuring words. "I think we are going to be the most protected people on the planet [during the Olympics]," Australian field hockey player Katrina Powell said last week. Adds U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, whose attempt to win as many as eight gold medals figures to be one of the Games' biggest stories, "It's pretty much going to be like Fort Knox over there."

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