Friday, February 8, 2002
Updated: February 9, 9:55 AM ET
Police, officials taking no chances
SALT LAKE CITY -- The show behind the scenes was just as impressive as the one inside. Before one athlete entered the Olympic stadium Friday night, the greatest defense in the history of sport was already well under way.
With snipers peering over the top of the rooftop and helicopters hovering overhead, a $310 million effort to protect the Olympics moved into full gear after nearly three years of planning.
Unlike the performers in the Olympic opening ceremony, though, the thousands of agents, police and military couldn't afford to make even the most minor mistake.
"We don't get a second chance," Secret Service agent Mark Camillo said.
Authorities didn't take a chance, either. Five protesters were arrested after confronting police near where President Bush was supposed to enter the stadium, and another protest group was dispersed after attempting to block a media bus.
Although no credible threat has surfaced against these games, top administration officials have warned that the Olympics could be a prime target of terrorists.
Security agents had put together a complex plan that includes 59 agencies and employs nearly 16,000 security workers on everything from snowshoes to fighter jets.
It began for real Friday with a ban on all air travel in and out of the city's airport during a three-hour opening ceremony that was to include President Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"Security worked extremely well," Salt Lake Olympic chief Mitt Romney said after the ceremony. "We're all breathing freely."
The security force was busy around the stadium in the hours before the ceremony, and a maze of fences and checkpoints stretched up to a half mile from its perimeter.
Police patrolled the fences on all-terrain vehicles, while helicopters kept watch overhead. The adjacent University of Utah campus, usually bustling with activity, was nearly deserted.
But the expected long waits to get through security checkpoints didn't materialize, and the stadium was filled long before the opening ceremony began.
About 150 police standing shoulder-to-shoulder with riot gear in hand near the stadium had a brief showdown with about 200 sign-waving protesters who supported women's rights and decried poverty.
A spokesman for the Olympic joint information command said a group of about 30 of the protesters moved toward a police line that was blocking the path to where Bush would enter the stadium, and five were arrested. Four were released after being cited, while the other was jailed.
"It looks like they wanted to be arrested to make a point," spokesman Marty Slack said.
Most of the 2,500 athletes didn't need to be convinced by top officials who said the games would be safer than any. Although polls showed Americans worried that terrorists might attack the games, all the security checks, police and National Guardsmen patrolling the area made them feel more secure.
"It's like when I crawl in bed at night and I have my down comforter," said Nina Kemppel, a cross-country skier and four-time Olympian. "It's that same kind of comfortable, fuzzy feeling."
Fans felt the same way.
"It's very intense security but it makes you feel safe," said Gail Stern of Baltimore as she made her way in a line toward the metal detectors outside the stadium.
The suffocating security meant spectators had to leave for events hours in advance. During a rehearsal on Wednesday, fans stood in line for up to two hours to get in.
But getting through security was much easier for the real thing, with spectators waiting a half hour or so in temperatures in the 20s. The longest lines were for reporters, some of whom waited 90 minutes to get through security checks.
One person who didn't wait was Steve Young, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and BYU. He was escorted around security along with several other people directly into the stadium.
Earlier Friday, there were long lines to get into the downtown medals plaza, where the only thing to see was an Olympic souvenir store and a few exhibits.
A security guard shouted at people to open their bags and remove anything from their pockets that could set off metal detectors. The line stretched across a parking lot and into the street.
At the nearby Salt Lake Ice Center, where figure skating will be held, strong overnight winds delayed the arrival of additional metal detectors, and there were long waits to get into practice sessions.
At the airport, flights were rerouted as authorities moved to enforce a shutdown of flights during the opening ceremony. A total of 332 flights were rescheduled or canceled during a four-hour period from 6-10 p.m.
A few people stood around watching the opening ceremonies on a large television at the airport, where screeners and security guards stood around with nothing to do.
"I thought Delta (Airlines) would give me free tickets to the opening ceremony because they stranded me here," said Nancy Johnson, who had to sit out the airport closure before she could connect to a flight home to Seattle.
Flight restrictions went into effect at midnight Thursday for a 90-mile wide area over Salt Lake City for the remainder of the Olympics. Until the games are over, only commercial airliners and planes that go through security checks at four gateway airports in other states will be allowed through the airspace.
Making sure the airspace is clear will be about a dozen U.S. Customs Black Hawk helicopters and several F-16 jets stationed at nearby Hill Air Force Base.
"If you violate the restrictions you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren you flew formation with the Department of Defense or Treasury Department," FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said.
Even the most mundane matters got some attention. Australia's security director warned his country's athletes against buying Valentine's Day flowers outside the Olympic Village because they could be sprayed with anthrax.
"We're just being cautious," Bob Myers said. "I guess you could say over cautious."