Terror Threat Makes Olympics a Tough Call for Bush

The following is an editorial from the May 4 edition of The Financial Times in London.
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LONDON. – The dark clouds over Athens grew a little more threatening last week when Mark Spitz, the American swimming legend, told the BBC that terrorism concerns might prompt the US to withdraw from this summers Olympics, due to begin in 100 days.

The US Olympic Committee immediately issued a statement dismissing Spitzs speculation, but the denial – *#8220;Today there is absolutely no consideration given to the notion our team will not be in Athens*#8221; – left enough wiggle room to drive an entire fleet of 18-wheel trucks through. In fact, the wording of the statement, almost Clintonian in its calibration, would seem to suggest that a pull-out is indeed a possibility.

Spitzs comment comes just weeks after tennis star Serena Williams hinted she may opt to forgo Athens in August. *#8220;My security and my safety and my life are a little bit more important than tennis,*#8221; Williams said in Florida last month, although she subsequently backtracked on the issue. And there are indications that terrorism fears may make the *#8220;dream team*#8221;, the US mens basketball squad, a little less celestial this time around. Three of the National Basketball Associations biggest names, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille ONeal and Jason Kidd, have not yet committed to playing (another, Kobe Bryant, is likely to miss the Games because his trial on sexual assault charges – he pleads not guilty – is scheduled for the summer), and there is considerable jitteriness about the safety of the team, which would obviously be the juiciest target in Athens.

True, tennis stars and NBA gods are seldom very enthusiastic about the Olympics – most seem to participate simply because it is commercially prudent – and, so far at least, few if any of the *#8220;regular*#8221; athletes are voicing doubts about going to Greece.

But the danger is a real one. The Athens organizers are expected to spend more than Dollars 1bn (Pounds 562m) on security, and last week the International Olympic Committee purchased a Dollars 170m insurance policy to cover losses in case the Games are cancelled. At the weekend, meanwhile, it was announced that Olympians from the US, Britain and Israel will have 24-hour armed protection.

Asked if he expects an attempted attack during the Athens fortnight, Louis Mizell, a former US State Department intelligence officer who helped with security at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and is now a security consultant, gives a sobering one-word answer: yes. *#8220;It is a huge international event, and for these terrorist groups it is an event that puts all of their enemies in one place,*#8221; says Mizell. *#8220;It is too tempting to pass up. If nothing happens, it will only mean that something was prevented.*#8221;

But the decision about whether to send the American team to Greece will not be made simply on the basis of security concerns; politics will also be a factor. This is an election year, and George Bush is campaigning as the war president, spearheading the battle against global terrorism. The Olympics could be a dicey call for the White House, particularly if there is evidence an atrocity is being plotted. Were the unthinkable to happen in Athens, and were US athletes to be among the victims, Bush would suddenly have a much tougher time persuading voters that his policies have made the world safer for Americans. The timing would be especially calamitous; the Republican National Convention convenes in early September and is being held in New York in order to remind the electorate of the September 11 2001 attacks and to enhance Bushs tough-on-terror image.

However, there is also considerable risk for Bush in not permitting the US team to go. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter withdrew the American side from the Moscow Games in protest at the Soviet Unions invasion of Afghanistan. The boycott accomplished three things: it resulted in a medals orgy for the Soviets and the East Germans; it enraged members of the US team; and it reinforced Carters hapless image. Much more would have been gained had the Americans gone to Moscow and beaten up the Soviets on the track and in the pool. Just six months earlier, the US mens ice hockey team had upended the mighty Soviets en route to winning the gold medal at the Lake Placid Winter Games, a victory that was surely a psychological turning point in the cold war.

It is also worth noting that Bushs father and mother have announced plans to be in Athens for the Olympics.

*#8220;I am 100 per cent confident that your great country, you yourself, and your committee are all doing an outstanding job,*#8221; the senior Bush wrote in letter last month to Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, head of the Athens organizing committee. *#8220;Barbara and I are anxiously awaiting the Olympic Games, and I am obviously thrilled that we will be there.*#8221;

Barring solid evidence that a devastating attack is in the works – and the evidence is seldom unambiguous – chances are the US contingent will go to Greece. The Bush administration has repeatedly advised Americans not to flinch in the face of terrorism (even as it reminds them on a daily basis of the mortal threat posed by Al-Qaeda); pulling out of the Olympics would be doing just that.

There is a popular bumper sticker in the US that shows the American flag and the words: *#8220;These colors dont run.*#8221; It is the language of the frontier, the language in which Bush seems to be most fluent, and it is the attitude that will likely carry the day as Athens nears.