Olympic Security: How Far Should It Go?

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Ashcroft talks with reporters about security matters in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is thousands of miles from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but the shadows of those crumbled buildings will nevertheless loom large over the Winter Games. This week, Attorney General John Ashcroft acknowledged unprecedented safety concerns by assigning still more federal officers to an already massive law enforcement presence.

Once, athletes who competed in the Olympics wandered more or less freely in their host cities, soaking up local atmosphere and mingling with spectators. But terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games changed all of that, kidnapping 11 Israeli athletes and forcing security into the spotlight.

This February, security issues will again take center stage. For 17 days, one million people from around the world will gather in Utah, temporarily ballooning the population of four counties. For every 50 or so of those visitors and athletes, there will be one member of a security team; 15,000 personnel from 60 federal agencies are expected to patrol the streets, man checkpoints and keep the peace.

Daunting? Yes. Doable? Certainly. So say architects and building security experts Dave Thompson and Norm Garden, vice presidents at RTKL, an architecture and engineering firm. Garden and Thompson know Olympic-size security requirements; Garden was involved in creating the master plan for the Beijing Olympic proposal and Thompson's security clients have included the Department of Defense and various intelligence agencies. TIME.com spoke with both men about the particular challenges of Salt Lake City and the responsibilities of everyone who's planning to attend these Games.

What are the main security concerns at an event like this?

Dave Thompson: The most important thing is to control who gets in. At the Olympics, you've got a lot of people, and a basic tenet of security is to keep control over who gets close to the venues — and that includes trucks making deliveries and buses coming in and out of restricted areas.

And while security at the venues themselves is certainly critical, it's what goes on in the spaces between the venues, among the athletes and the visitors that's really important. Since 1972 security in Olympic village has been getting tighter — and this year will be no exception.

I'm not too worried about the Olympics — it seems they're doing everything they can to keep people safe. The bottom line for security is you have to assume some risk, and that's a very tough thing for people, including me, to do.

What can spectators and visitors do to help keep themselves safe?

First and foremost, they shouldn't be afraid to speak up if they see something weird or out of the ordinary. To be perfectly honest, there's not a whole lot that spectators can do, but one thing they can do is be alert, keep their eyes open. Take it seriously that you're a citizen and part of that responsibility is to look out for people around you and also for yourself.

Norm Garden: It's probably best for spectators to understand what they're getting into when they go to Salt Lake. Americans are used to a lot of freedom of movement. At these Games, though, I think you'll see a little bit of our freedom sacrificed in order to achieve utmost security — and we'll also have to be more patient — which is a new characteristic for most of us.

How realistic are expectations of total safety?

Thompson:They're doing a good job, but there's never going to be 100 percent guaranteed safety. Unfortunately, if something happens, there will always be fingers pointing, asking, "Why didn't you do x, y or z?" Even if you cover every base you can possibly conceive of, there can be surprises. September 11th showed us that.

Are there security issues specific to the Salt Lake venue?

Garden Our Los Angeles office was involved in creating the 2008 Olympic plan for Beijing, and during that process we noticed that one of the key differences between holding games here and abroad is that abroad you can start building from the ground up and in a very concentrated area — while here in the states we tend to already have existing structures. So here it's a matter of retrofitting and dealing with a sprawling area.

For instance, in Beijing, everyone will be flying in and staying in a very specific area of the city, while in Salt Lake people can drive in and they might stay anywhere within a 50-mile radius. So people are spread out all over the place, in little clumps of crowds. And ironically, the issue of crowd control has never really been paramount at U.S. games because, as I mentioned before, we do tend to gear our events towards freedom of movement.