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Athens confronts glory and terror

By Betsy Hiel

Sunday, August 8, 2004

The ancient games in Olympia, Greece, barred female athletes on pain of death.

As the games return to their ancient and modern origins on Friday, however, two Pittsburgh-area women are going for the gold.

Swin Cash, 22, McKeesport, plays on a U.S. women's basketball team favored to win a gold medal. Lauryn Williams, 20, Rochester, is considered a medal threat in the 100-meter track-and-field race.

They will be joined by the University of Pittsburgh's Ricardo Busquets, swimming the 50-meter freestyle for his native Puerto Rico.

The games leading to the XXVIII Olympiad began in 776 B.C. and lasted for nearly 1,200 years. The modern games were revived in 1896 in Greece.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators and up to 10,500 athletes from 202 nations are descending on Athens for the first Summer Games held amid post-9/11 security fears.

Greeks -- reconciled to months of daily inconvenience from the frantic construction needed to make their country Olympic-ready -- are excited to host the Games, according to Dr. David Gilman Romano, senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"They are very proud of their cultural heritage ... proud that they started the games in ancient times, and that it has become such a global cultural and athletic event," Romano said from Greece.

With a population of nearly 12 million, comparable to Pennsylvania's, Greece is the smallest nation to host the Olympics since Finland in 1952.

Security a priority

Late last week, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis toured the main Olympic complex and declared Athens "fully prepared ... to organize exceptional Games under conditions of maximum security."

Yet 3 million of the 5.2 million tickets remain unsold.

Locally, travel agents report minimal customer interest in the Olympics. Barbara Vassilicos, of Bridgeville's Carlson Wagonlit Travel Agency, says the lack of travelers is "not typical. People are still a bit hesitant to go overseas" because of security concerns, "although they have no reason."

Greece is spending $1.5 billion on security, more than four times what Australia spent on the Sydney Games. NATO is assisting with naval, air, biochemical and nuclear-warfare units.

Security is tight at Greece's two major ports, Piraeus and Thessaloniki, where cruise ships such as the Queen Mary II will berth. The ships will host such VIPs as former President George H.W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac.

Even so, security experts are not sure a terrorist attack can be prevented.

"To be fair to the Greeks, wherever the 2004 Games would be, the risks would be high," explains E. Wayne Merry, a former U.S. State Department and Pentagon official who worked on counter-terrorism measures at the U.S. Embassy in Athens.

Still, he thinks "the risk is even greater because the Greeks, for reasons of national pride, up until March refused almost all international cooperation on security."

Besides Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, Greek anarchists, anti-Russian Chechens and other non-Arab terrorists are potential threats.

Greece has taken adequate steps to prevent an attack by domestic and non-Arab groups, Merry says. "Realistically, however, despite the vast effort and expense by the defenders, the fate of the 2004 Olympic Summer Games remains at the mercy of al-Qaida."

If al-Qaida is plotting to strike, he says, it likely began planning years in advance -- pre-dating all the counter-measures -- and long ago put a sleeper cell under the cover of Greece's small Muslim community.

The threat is not deterring American athletes and their families.

"I am not really nervous, but I am definitely aware of what is going on in the world," says basketball star Swin Cash. "I have a lot of confidence in USA Basketball and the security which will be set up there to keep us informed of what is going on. I wouldn't miss this opportunity for anything."

Swimmer Ricardo Busquets' wife, Emily, says security concerns will not stop her or her husband's mother and sister from traveling to Athens: "I think they have done a lot to prepare for this, and what is the option -- not go? That is not an option."

A long, safe road

Ancient Greece's sports fans traveled from afar to watch the games in Olympia every four years. Under an Olympic Truce, various Greek city-states could continue to fight if they were at war at the time, but they were bound to provide safe passage to the games' athletes and spectators.

"It is as if Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were their own countries," explains David C. Young, a classics professor at the University of Florida and author of "A Brief History of the Olympic Games." "You also could not attack Olympia as part of the truce."

Not unlike modern times, however, politics and some exceptions to the rules played a role in antiquity. Boycotts of the games occurred, and Olympia was attacked in 364 B.C.

Despite the expected traffic jams, potential electrical brown-outs and terrorist threats, modern Olympians and spectators have it easy, compared to their ancient counterparts.

Tony Perrottet, author of "The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Olympics," says ancient sports fans walked to Olympia -- 210 miles from Athens, for example -- "so you had to be rather fit to get there." Others came from distant Greek colonies, sailing from as far as Spain or the Black Sea.

"You had to brave storms, and pirates who were no more charitable than al-Qaida," Perrottet said.

"In antiquity, the Olympics were the best thing around," says the University of Florida's Dr. Young. "Now, it is so global and it is still so special."

Betsy Hiel can be reached at hielb@yahoo.com or .

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