Third World Thrills in Utah

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As cool as Olympic sports might look from the couch, rest assured that you are not necessarily missing anything by not being there in person. The luge, for example, is just kind of a whizzing noise and a blur every 50 seconds, after which everybody looks at one another and laughs the laugh of people who were just screwed into paying $1.25 per second of entertainment.

What you are missing, though, is the security show. Salt Lake City is a $350 million U.S. Army theme park — the Disneyland of militarism with 16,000 cast members, an Eisenhowerian House of Horrors. Every block is a 12-year-old boy's dream. It may take an hour to get to the luge, but along the way, you can see National Guard maneuvers, talk to correctional officers from all over the country and see F-16s overhead. It's all the thrills of living in a Third World country without giving up one single chain restaurant.

On the way to a skiing event of some kind, where you could see only the bottom fifth of the run, our Time car was stopped and thoroughly searched. At the end of the search, one Army guy asked us for some pins. We handed them over and moved on. It was like getting past the cops in Tijuana. You can get anywhere you want to here with a handful of pins. If al-Qaeda made up Olympic Terrorism 2002 pins, they could get into any venue of their choosing.

Impressed by the luge security, I wanted to see how intense it would be around the Governor of Utah. So I set up an appointment and arrived at the Capitol, where I learned you can get into the parking lot with nothing more than the statement, "I'm here to see the Governor." Luckily for me, this doesn't require memorizing his name. Also lucky for me is that Michael Leavitt's name is on his office door. There were no National Guardsmen in the building, no Secret Service, no bomb-sniffing dogs, none of the things that had made speed skating so exciting. In fact, Leavitt, who was wearing a really nice Christmas sweater, has himself been walking through lots of magnetometers at events — including curling, of which he is a big fan. "I find it really interesting," he said. "We went with the cabinet and had a chance to compete. We had such a good time, we went again. We even thought about forming a team." Maybe the Governor of Utah doesn't need that much security, after all.

Admittedly, my expectations were pretty high, considering that even the bathroom at the media center has a security guard in front of it. "Does that mean you don't even have to lock the door?" asked Leavitt. "Is there someone in there with you already?" His questions about the men's room were making me uncomfortable, so I asked Leavitt what John Ashcroft had been expecting last Wednesday when he put the Olympics on extra-super-high alert. "We were already on a heightened level," he said. "But that was the day we put security in front of the rest rooms." He also told me that when Ashcroft came to Salt Lake a few weeks ago to check out the security, he spent an awful lot of time inspecting the skiing venues.

After a while, Leavitt deduced that I was on to the lack of security at the Capitol, or perhaps he was just trying to get rid of me. Either way, he ended the conversation by trying to win me over: he offered me a pin. I loudly refused, not only because journalistic integrity has never come so cheap, but because those things always set off the magnetometers.