Friday, April 30, 2004

Sports becomes risky business

Olympic scribes getting training about terrorism

The Cincinnati Enquirer
Paul Daugherty

At 09:00 hours Monday, 40-some sports media types will walk into the New York Times building and learn what to do when a car bomb explodes. They'll get the same six-hour crash course on terrorism that the Times' people in Iraq got. Only they're going to Athens for the Olympics.

That the New York Times is training its sports staff the way it trains its war correspondents is no cause for concern. "It's common-sense things," said Tom Jolly, the paper's sports editor.

Fine. But why is common sense raising the hair on the back of my neck?

We've come a long way from 1988, when the United States Olympic Committee posted a memo to all U.S. sports media covering the Games in Seoul, South Korea, warning us not to comment on the perpetually foul-smelling breath of the hosts. The Koreans chew garlic as if it were Doublemint.

We were also told not to compliment a Korean woman on her appearance, or to be seen in public without a shirt on. A colleague was cited for jogging shirtless. Korean soldiers patrolled the airport. But nobody said anything about biological attacks. Nobody discussed how to hug a wall properly when a bomb went off.

"We just want to be ready in case something happens," said Jolly. He was short on specifics for the six-hour session. After all, he is a Sports Guy, too, not yet G.I. Journalist. Newsweek said topics to be covered Monday by the British firm Centurion Risk Assessment Services will include avoiding or reacting to "car bombs, blast injuries, chem.-bio attacks and mass panic in the streets."

Other than that, Aug. 13-29 in Athens ought to be one heckuva good time.

The Athens Organizing Committee is spending $1 billion to secure the Games. Which is comforting. Or would be, if construction of venues and services weren't so perilously behind schedule. How do you train security guards to work in buildings that aren't finished yet?

The International Olympic Committee on Monday took out a $170 million insurance policy, lest the Games be canceled for terrorism or natural disaster. To protect the U.S. men's basketball team that might spend its nights on the Queen Mary 2 in the port city of Piraeus, the Greeks will employ divers, submarines and seabed detectors.

And Monday, the New York Times will tell sports writers what to do in a terrorist attack.

I'm fired up for Athens now.

Should I book my flight or up my life insurance?

Notebooks, check. Pens, tape recorder, cell phone. Check, check and check. Marriott Rewards card, Delta Silver Elite card, gas mask, flak jacket, bandages, rosary.

You get into this business for lots of reasons. You love sports. You love the drama it produces, the singular moments, the pride and poise and will involved. It's good writing, all of it. You bear witness to some of the best the human spirit provides. And now, possibly, some of the worst.

After 9-11, I couldn't wait to get on a plane. I bought a polo shirt for the occasion, decorated in an American flag. It was a sad, proud time. Now, I'm being advised not to wear anything in Greece that could identify me as American. The backpack from the Flying Pig Marathon is out. So is the polo shirt. So, too, is the bravado.

In the past, we in the sports media bragged about "surviving" another Olympics: the bad phone connections, the jammed traffic, the 16-hour days, the difficulty getting a decent burger in Barcelona. That's quaint now.

Welcome to Athens, home of the 2004 War Games.

"It's better to be safe than sorry," Tom Jolly figured. "No matter what happens, it's going to be one of the biggest stories of the year."

Yeah. No matter what happens.


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