SALT LAKE CITY — National Guardsmen patrolling the airport with M-16s were not part of the original plan for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Then came Sept. 11, and the Salt Lake Games would never be the same.
With the games scheduled to start 100 days from Wednesday, Olympic organizers who overcame scandal and financial problems now have just one overriding mission — protecting 2,500 athletes and the fans who come to watch them.
Unlike the bloody history of the Summer Games, the Winter Olympics have never been disrupted by terrorist attacks. If they are in Salt Lake City, those who are running them know well that both the city and the games may be forever scarred.
“If you don’t have a safe games, there’s nothing you can do to redeem yourself,” said Mitt Romney, who heads the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
About the only thing that will still be the same for 17 days in February is that the world’s best skiers, skaters and jumpers will be competing for Olympic gold.
But getting in to see them will now take more patience, and new security measures will mute some of the festivities that normally surround an Olympics.
Some residents who were once proud their city landed the games are now fearful that they will become a target.
“There is an awful lot of people that if they can find a way to get out of town for three weeks are out of here,” attorney Bruce Baird said. “I think it is just dawning on people what it might be like.”
Indeed, the enduring image of the Feb. 8-24 games for those attending may be one of tall fences topped with razor wire and standing in long lines to empty pockets and purses into large plastic tubs for security checks.
At the downtown high-rise where Baird has his office, workers were evacuated last week in a pre-Olympic drill.
“The attacks have changed people’s psyche. Nobody before thought it was possible,” said Robert Flowers, who heads the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command, the security umbrella for the games. “We weren’t talking about anthrax in Olympic venues before. Now we are. It caused us to take some things more seriously.”
Before last month’s terrorist attacks, Olympic security officials thought they had built a strong, multifaceted plan at a cost of some $265 million.
Now the tab is over $300 million, thanks to the addition of 2,000 National Guardsmen to help guard venues and materials and the need to buy more metal detectors, security fences and surveillance equipment.
Some 10,000 security personnel will be on guard, outnumbering athletes 4-1. Another 5,000 SLOC workers will help guide ticket holders through metal detectors and other detection equipment and make sure they aren’t carrying backpacks or other items that might conceal a weapon.
In the sky, U.S. Customs helicopters and radar planes will patrol, along with F-16s from nearby Hill Air Force Base. Extraordinary air security measures will likely include the closure of Salt Lake International Airport to air traffic during the opening and closing ceremonies and airspace restrictions at other times.
On the streets, health officials will have stocked up on antibiotics, and portable decontamination units will be ready to speed to venues should suspicious substances be found.
Experts will monitor the air for chemical and biological contamination, and thousands of volunteers have been trained to respond to any type of threat.
“If there’s something found or spotted, we’ll have someone on the scene in minutes and we’ll know how to handle it and what to do,” Flowers said.
The FBI will have 1,000 agents in Utah to investigate and respond to any threats. Last week, teams of Secret Service agents practiced for various scenarios in Salt Lake City.
“The intent was to dial up the stress levels,” said Mark Camillo, Olympics coordinator for the Secret Service, which has overall responsibility for the games’ security.
Indeed, organizers say about the only thing that hasn’t been planned is what to do if the games are canceled. SLOC has $150 million in cancellation insurance from an earlier policy, but Romney said nothing short of a world war could stop the games.
SLOC has gone so far as to reserve charter planes to bring athletes to the United States should the world’s air travel system be in turmoil.
“The circumstances that suggest you couldn’t go forward with the games are unthinkable in my view,” Romney said. “There is no Plan B. You proceed with the games almost regardless of the turbulence.”
Organizers say they hope much of the security will be unobtrusive and barely noticeable, outside of the security fences and checkpoints and the bomb-sniffing dogs at competition sites.
Much of the armed security will be in plain clothes to blend in with the crowds, while some 1,900 state and local police officers and 500 volunteer officers from around the country will be outfitted in yellow and black uniforms.
With new plans in place, they’re now trying to convince both foreign governments and Olympic ticket holders that the safest place to be in February may actually be Salt Lake City.
Romney said only 15 people asked for refunds in the wake of the terrorist attacks, and that the head of the Iranian Olympic committee wrote him a three-page letter congratulating him on the steps taken to protect athletes.
At a security briefing Monday, Danish International Olympic Committee member Niels Holst-Sorensen said the plans are detailed and thorough.
“Everything is very well in hand,” he said.
The extensive plans, though, don’t stop security officials from fretting. A lone man was responsible for the Atlanta bombing that killed one and injured dozens of others, and they worry as much about that as they do about any large organized attack.
“No one can have 100 percent security. It’s not possible,” Flowers said. “But if we feel we can’t give reasonable protection then we’d ask them not to hold the games.”
Romney doubts terrorists would make the Olympics a target.
“Attacking a group of young athletes from around the world doesn’t seem to be a good public relations move to me,” Romney said. “The terrorists didn’t attack the United Nations, they attacked symbols of America. I don’t think they would want to attack the Olympics.”