Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 24, 2012

All Olympics are the same. All Olympics are different.

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 24, 2012

The 30th Olympiad — otherwise known as London 2012 — officially starts on Friday.

Forty years ago, terrorists killed 11 athletes, coaches and a police officer during the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Here’s what a senior official of the Black September group said about the attack at the Munich Games:

In our assessment, and in light of the result, we have made one of the best achievements of Palestinian commando action. A bomb in the White House, a mine in the Vatican, the death of Mao Tse-tung, an earthquake in Paris could not have echoed through the consciousness of every man in the world like the operation at Munich. The Olympiad arouses the people’s interest and attention more than anything in the world. The choice of the Olympics, from the purely propagandistic viewpoint, was 100 percent successful. It was like painting the name of Palestine on a mountain that can be seen from the four corners of the earth.” (cited in One Day In September, p. 248)


I’ve had the fortune to participate in or observe security operations for six Olympiads. Based mostly on that experience, I’m not a fan of the Olympic Games.

The Olympics are a circus that comes to town for a little while, selling promises and dreams. It helps separate people from their money, then packs up the tents and moves on to the next stop.

Athletes also participate in the Olympics.

I think the Olympics — like college football — commodify athletes. Since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, competition for the actual gold takes place among corporations, not the men and women who spend lifetimes getting ready for what may, in retrospect, seem like an instant.

But I believe mine is a minority opinion.


While I’m not fond of the Olympics, I am a fan of Olympic Security.

There is an aphorism in the event security world that says all Olympics are the same and all Olympics are different.

All the Games are similar when it comes to the rhythm and patterns of security planning. But one enters dangerous territory relying too much on sameness. The differences can bite.


London was awarded the 2012 Games on July 6, 2005. The next day, suicide terrorists detonated 4 bombs in the city.

Even without an attack to arouse “the people’s interest and attention,” security planning for the Olympics starts the day after a city gets the Games, and continues for 7 years. At least it has for every Olympiad I’ve seen.

Security officials can’t just plan for venues. Anything significant that happens anywhere in the host city has the potential to be perceived as an Olympic incident. So they have to protect a circus watched by the world, and at the same time take care of everything else they are normally responsible for. It’s a tough and mostly thankless job, made more difficult and more expensive each time the Olympics comes to town.

Every two years I try to ignore the Summer and Winter Olympics. This Olympiad — this week — is no exception.

But Olympic memories seep through the slough.


Barcelona 1992

The Spanish National Police provided my housing during the 1992 Games. I stayed on a heavily fortified paramilitary police base. There were humvee-like vehicles and heavily armed guards everywhere in and around the base.

“Can’t get much safer than this,” I thought.

Then someone told me the police lost an average of 2 officers a month to terrorist attacks during the 7 year planning period.

I got to watch one athletic event: a baseball game between two countries I did not even knew played baseball. I think that was my first introduction to globalism.

Baseball is no longer an Olympic sport.

Globalism still is.

In Munich, terrorists broke into the athletes’ village.

The village was also a huge security problem in Barcelona. But the problem mostly had to do with athletes who finished competing. They were breaking out of the village at night to enjoy one of the most spectacular cities in Europe.

The village also ran out of condoms.

Athletes may be commodified. But they are in incredible physical shape.


Atlanta 1996

The Atlanta Police Department procured the services of a blimp to fly “observation missions” over the city during the Games. One location the blimp frequently observed was the roof of a downtown strip club. I think there was a clothing optional swimming pool on the roof. It provided a training opportunity during the 100 degree Georgia days to practice sending real time videos from the blimp to the command center.

I recall one day during the Games someone found a suspicious package in an underground mall in Atlanta. CNN thoughtfully televised images of the bomb squad responding to the package. When police found out what was going out on live television, they asked CNN to stop doing that. CNN complied.

In Munich, television helped the terrorists in the village know what the police outside were up to. Now most everyone carries a video camera in their pocket.

The Centennial Olympic Park was created by the games organizers (malappropriately called ACOG) for people to enjoy the Olympic ambiance. It was not a secure venue, in the parlance of the security planning world. It was a public park. A place to hang out.

At 1:20 am on July 27th, while a band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack was about the play “Take me to the river,” a bomb planted by Eric Rudolph exploded, killing Alice Hawthorne and Melih Uzunyol, and wounding 111 people.

Rudolph later said:

In the summer of 1996, the world converged upon Atlanta for the Olympic Games. Under the protection and auspices of the regime in Washington millions of people came to celebrate the ideals of global socialism. Multinational corporations spent billions of dollars, and Washington organized an army of security to protect these best of all games. Even though the conception and purpose of the so-called Olympic movement is to promote the values of global socialism, as perfectly expressed in the song Imagine by John Lennon, which was the theme of the 1996 Games even though the purpose of the Olympics is to promote these despicable ideals, the purpose of the attack on July 27 was to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand. The plan was to force the cancellation of the Games, or at least create a state of insecurity to empty the streets around the venues and thereby eat into the vast amounts of money invested.

July 27, 2012 is the 16th anniversary of the Centennial Park bombing. It’s also opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Games.

I will be surprised if the 2012 Games take a moment to remember the people killed and injured in 1996 or in 1972.

I hope I’m wrong, but during the Olympics it’s bad form to dwell on the negative.


Sydney 2000

These were the greatest Olympic Games I’ve seen. The entire nation — or at least the Sydney part of the nation — was transfixed by the spectacle. You could not go anywhere without hearing crowds yelling Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy; Oi, Oi, Oi, whatever that meant.

As loud as those cheers were, they were a whisper compared to the roar that exploded across the city when the Australian Cathy Freeman won the 400 meter gold medal.

At that moment, even someone cynical about the Olympics felt a chill. A good chill.

On the last night of the Games, two million people lined Sydney Harbor to watch the closing fireworks. I was on the roof of a hotel watching crowd control operations. Two million people can’t be controlled, I pontificated to myself, especially when there is as much alcohol flowing as there was that night.

“This should be something,” I thought.

It was something.

Two million people watched the fireworks, had a good time, then left. Peacefully. From a public safety perspective, it was thoroughly uneventful.

I do remember one obviously drunk young man staggering around in the crowd picking up empty beer bottles. He was putting them into recycle bins.

Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy; Oi, Oi, Oi.


Salt Lake City 2002

I heard a reporter describe the Winter Olympics as a competition involving “various forms of sliding.”

Opening ceremonies took place 5 months after the September 11, 2001 attacks. US athletes and New York City Port Authority police carried the American flag recovered from the World Trade Center into the Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium. 55,000 people did not make a sound.

A few days later there was a traffic problem at one of the mountain venues. The head of the Olympic organizing committee (known as SLOC) reportedly used the F word while chastising one of the Olympic traffic control volunteers. Mr. Romney said he did not use the F word. Other people had a different memory of the incident.

One night during the Games, “a sample from the [Salt Lake City airport’s] C concourse tested positive for anthrax.”

A detection system had been set up as a prototype for what eventualy would become the Biowatch program. If anthrax were present, the Salt Lake City airport — maybe every airport in the nation — would have to be shut down.

There’s an instructive story about the executive decision making process used during this incident. But that will have to wait for a different post.

Turned out it wasn’t anthrax.

The February night before closing ceremonies was a warm spring-like Salt Lake City Saturday. Too many people — mostly young — tried getting into the Bud World tent. Because even Utah’s famous “3.2 beer” can get to you in the high mountains, the crowd got a bit unruly. The unruliness turned into a riot.

I particularly remember one very drunk woman in the front of the crowd, screaming at the police, “You can’t arrest me! You can’t arrest me!” She held a small, thin dog in her arms.

Later I learned the police did not arrest her because “We didn’t know what to do with the dog.”

Even if you have seven years, you can’t plan for everything.

The riot was latter called “the riot that wasn’t a riot,” because during the Olympics it’s bad form to point out the negative.

An explosion caused a power outage near the Salt Lake City airport the day of closing ceremonies. It wasn’t terrorist related, we discovered later. But still — Olympics? Explosion? Who knew for sure?


Athens 2004

(This post is already much longer than I thought it would be.  Must. Stop. Remembering.)

One memory from Athens. The Europeans — and a guy from the US State Department — were nervous the Olympic venues in Athens would not be ready for the Games.

I worked with a general from the Hellenic police. He laughed at the criticism. “We started the Olympics in 776 BC,” he said. “The venues weren’t finished then either. But we managed.”

That’s one reason why I don’t worry too much about the Greek “financial crisis.” Somehow Greece always seems to manage.


Turin 2006

One more memory. I had a colleague from the Carabinieri who was the lead security planner in Turin for awhile. (Another Olympic truism: all lead security planners are only lead security planners for awhile.)

He was getting ready for a headquarter’s inspection of the Olympic security plan. According to him, the inspection consisted of people from Rome who knew nothing about Olympics or security. The visit would be a waste of his time.

“I hate the Romans,” he said, as if he were talking about one of the Caesars.

“We all hate it when the Romans come. Nothing good can come of it. But it’s Rome. What can you do?”

If he were an American Olympic security planner, or maybe even a state, local or tribal homeland security professional, he could just as easily have been talking about a visit by someone from Washington DC.

“But it’s Washington. What can you do?”


Last point, again from Simon Reeve’s book about the Munich attack.

Reeve writes about Israeli officials who wanted to retaliate against the Black September group.

The officials cited the ancient “Olympic Truce.” The words of the truce portray an ideal for the Olympiad. They coldly warn anyone who seeks to disrupt the Games. They sear an inviolable duty on all charged with protecting the Olympics.

Olympia is a sacred place.
Anyone who dares to enter it
by force of arms commits an
offense against the gods.
Equally guilty is he who has
it in his power to avenge a
misdeed and fails to do so.

From a security perspective — since 776 BC through 2012 AD — all Olympics are the same.

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 24, 2012 @ 12:30 am

I really need to learn more about your career path…and how to follow it.

Also, when we have this conversation, however, we should have it far from my few Australian friends who might want to talk to you about “Ozzy…”

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

July 24, 2012 @ 12:46 am

It’s a deal, Arnold. Next time we’re in the same city….

Comment by John Comiskey

July 24, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

Looking past the commodification of athletes and uber alles in our market society, the Olympics do offer terrorists and bad mad men prize targets.

1,200+ UK troops times two to replace a logistically challenged private security company raises great concern. See: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/london/story/2012-07-24/1200-extra-troops-added-for-security/56449418/1

Is that all there is to the 11th hour effort or are new threats surfacing? The new normalcy has grown old and prohibitively expensive.

Best wishes to all participating athletes commoditized or otherwise. Safe tours to the UK homeland security professionals.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

July 24, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

Atlanta, Salt Lake, Athens too… bit parts in China and Vancouver. Hopefully Sochi in 2014.

Once again trumped by Bellavita…but he is right; the show and circus are highly corporate yet interesting.

Torch Relay is also a huge show and security is interesting because the venue changes every night. 2004 was epic world tour that was exhausting and exciting.

Interesting tid bit; was asked to provide special mission capability in New Orleans with Torch in ’96.

Upon arrival to command car was asked to get #2 at ACOG morning coffee…

Circus indeed.

Comment by Bruce Martin

August 18, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

One look at this Olympics’ outcome.
Agile Problem-Solving at the London Olympics

Sent via Flipboard

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

August 20, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

Thanks for sending the link, Bruce. It reminded me why they call the Olympics Group the “Organizing” committee, rather than the Organized Committee.

A similar personnel issue happened during the Atlanta Olympics. The number of private security people who were supposed to show up got better offers from the private sector, so the US Military provided security — mostly Guardsmen and women. The military also played a role in Utah during their games. Before September 11th, 2001, the organizing committee was trying to get the military to wear civilian clothes instead of their uniforms. That request vanished after September 11th.

All olympics are the same. all olympics are different.

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