Prepared as no Olympic host city before, Salt Lake City waits _ and hopes for the best

Friday, February 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ In a jittery world changed by terrorism, the opening of the Olympics means a shift into high gear for a $310 million security effort unprecedented in the history of sports.

The massive, multilayered plan has a little bit of everything, from helicopters and jets to high-tech surveillance devices and a force of nearly 16,000 security workers on the ground.

What all the money and preparation can't buy, though, is a guarantee.

``We may not eliminate risk entirely because there is no such thing as an absolute fail-safe guarantee in Salt Lake City or anywhere else,'' U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Thursday.

Police found that out on the eve of Friday's opening ceremony, when a bag that appeared to contain an explosive was discovered next to a parking garage near the Olympic media center downtown.

It turned out to be nothing but some electrical wires and fuses. But the massive response by Olympic security underscored fears that it might have been a ruse designed to gauge reaction.

``There's some concern it was like a trial run,'' Salt Lake Police City spokesman Craig Gleason said.

A plan three years in the making gets tested right away in the opening ceremony, where President Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and three other heads of state will join 55,000 fans and the world's best winter athletes in Rice-Eccles Stadium, on the University of Utah campus.

``There is no margin for error,'' Secret Service agent Mark Camillo said. ``We don't get a second chance.''

To make sure none is needed, sniper teams will be positioned on nearby roofs and Black Hawk helicopters will hover nearby. To be extra sure, all flights in and out of Salt Lake International Airport will be halted for four hours.

The Secret Service has employed everything from the latest technology for fighting bioterrorism to bomb-sniffing dogs that will make daily sweeps through Olympic venues in a sprawling 900-square-mile area, in the Salt Lake Valley and the nearby Wasatch Mountains.

Outside the stadium, spectators will stand in long lines waiting to get through metal detectors under the watchful eye of National Guardsmen carrying M-16s.

Everything is in place. Nothing, it is hoped, has been left to chance.

Fifty-nine agencies make up the security force, which rivals the size of a major city police department. Nearly 16,000 security personnel _ enough to give each athlete six bodyguards _ are charged with making the games safe for athletes and the 1.5 million ticket holders.

They've got history on their side, but the horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks remains fresh in their minds. And if something goes tragically wrong, they know people won't forget.

``All that can be done to make this a safe place has been done,'' Salt Lake Olympic chief Mitt Romney said. ``This will be a safe place. I think you can make the argument this will be the safest place on Earth for 25 days.''

About the only thing they haven't figured out is how to move large numbers of people quickly through security checks. Waits of more than an hour are expected.

``We're absolutely ready to go,'' Secret Service spokesman Mark Connolly said. ``We're looking forward for the focus to move to the games themselves, the athletes and competition and away from the security preparations.''

Security planners have tried to keep much of the protection as unobtrusive as possible. Hundreds of police will look much like ordinary spectators mingling with crowds, and cameras will discreetly keep watch on all Olympic sites.

It's hard to miss the National Guard, though, and a close look into the woods near the ski slopes will find agents walking through the snow.

That's fine with most athletes, who say they welcome the protection.

``The more F-16s I see flying around, the safer I feel,'' U.S. skier Picabo Street said.