Torch or Torture?

The Greeks may have their hands full for the Olympics.

Rulon Gardner, the playful Wyoming giant who pulled off the biggest upset of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, will be leaving the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for Athens next month, hoping to win a second gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.

The Greeks might do better to station Rulon on their border with Macedonia, where the big guy could intercept some of the assorted bomb-throwers and anthrax-sprinklers who might attempt to visit the Summer Games. If they're unimpressed by the heavyweight's sheer bulk or his ability to fling a Toyota Tercel into neighboring Bulgaria, he could always show them his big toe -- the one that had to be amputated after that famous snowmobiling mishap a few winters back. He keeps it in a jar of formaldehyde, a sight that would deter even the craziest radical from pressing on to his $900-a-night hotel room on Syntagma Square.

Even without Gardner on guard, these will be the most security-conscious Olympics ever. At last accounting, Greece was planning to spend $1.2 billion -- four times the security budget in Sydney and fifty times what Atlanta spent in 1996 -- to keep athletes and visitors safe. And to turn the Olympic Village into Alcatraz with nice bathrooms. When the Games start, six weeks from now, the skies over Athens will be clotted with AWACS surveillance planes and squadrons of supersonic NATO fighters. Patriot missile crews will look for unauthorized aircraft. God, what glorious Hollywood excess. The Israeli Navy on patrol in Greek coastal waters. Armed frogmen in the Aegean shallows. Hundreds of police dogs prowling fenced-off perimeters. Almost 2,000 closed-circuit TV cameras peeping into everybody's wallet and lingerie. The Greek government has announced that 50,000 heavily armed police officers will be watching hotels and sports venues, with 10,000 Greek soldiers slated for backup. American, British and Israeli athletes will be accompanied 24/7 by armed guards. Don't forget the 60,000 trained volunteers who've been thoroughly briefed on security.

So. Go ahead. Tee it up for that first-round field hockey game against Namibia. Have a ball. Don't worry about a thing. Certainly not that deal on the train in Madrid, or the fact that Athenian anarchists have set off a series of homemade bombs in recent months -- including a May 5 attack on a police station.

The guardians of the Olympic Ideal -- a tradition consisting of fine sportsmanship, international brotherhood and rampant bribery -- are not unaware of the harsh realities of post-9/11 life. Not exactly. But they seem to care a lot more about water polo than, oh, the possibility that al-Qaeda might try to poison Carmelo Anthony's plate of souvlaki. "These will be the safest Games ever," the current Olympic mantra goes. "We have taken every precaution." Unconvinced, the governments of New Zealand and Australia have issued advisories to their citizens about traveling to Athens. In turn, Olympic officials accused those two nations of needlessly raising fears of a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, the Greeks -- who are as famous for their procrastination as for their Doric columns -- spent almost three of the six years since being awarded the Olympics sipping ouzo and thinking how nice it was going to be to have the Games back in the family again. At this time last year, construction on more than half of the 38 venues was running woefully behind. The ill-designed roof over the main Olympic stadium was a huge headache. New streets, roads and train stations were an unfinished mess, and even now the 26-mile marathon course has a long way to go. Work crews have caught up on most key projects, but unforeseen delays (who knew the Socialist government would fall?) and fiscal overruns have increased the country's Olympic budget from $5.5 billion to almost $7 billion. That's not all. With its five million people and two million cars, Athens is already one of the most congested cities in Europe, and half a dozen public unions, unhappy with their piece of the pie from the country's last-minute construction frenzy, are threatening to strike -- maybe even during the Games.

Little wonder that box-office action is a tad disappointing. As of last week, three million Olympic tickets remained unsold -- and many of the best-heeled fans from around the world won't even be staying in local hotels. Worried about terrorism, they'll be holed up instead in top-of-the-line cruise ships and yachts, eating and sleeping offshore. The bottom line: Greece is getting lots of pretty new infrastructure, but it will probably be saddled with massive Olympic debt for decades, just like other recent host countries.

Not to be unpatriotic or anything, but the fun factor could also drop a few notches for the 550 American athletes in Athens and their fans back home. NBC Sports has committed to sixteen straight days of wall-to-wall TV coverage -- when it's over, Bob Costas may have to go into hiding -- but how much of it will appeal to Joe Six-Pack, or to connoisseurs of the individual épée? There will be no U.S. baseball team in Athens -- didn't qualify -- which is akin to banning bratwurst in Milwaukee. Carmelo and LeBron James will be shooting hoops for the U.S. team, but a dozen other NBA stars have turned down the opportunity, citing fatigue. Fatigue. Not that terrorism thing. The popular track-and-field events, some of them long dominated by Americans, are currently shadowed by scandal. Tim Montgomery, the 100-meter world champion who can outrun machine-gun bullets, is facing a lifetime ban by the wonderfully named U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (which has failed to keep dopes out of the "Olympic Movement") for alleged steroid use. Ditto track's fastest woman, Marion Jones, along with double medal-winner Chryste Gaines and the swift Alvin Harrison. If they don't compete, the U.S. team will look anemic.

You gotta hype something, so NBC has been promoting the favored U.S. woman gymnasts: a Carly, a Chellsie and two Courtneys who, put together, weigh less than Rulon's severed toe. The attentive NBC viewer can also hear the word "volleyball" being uttered, and the Williams sisters -- Serena and Venus -- assure us that they have new outfits ready for Olympic tennis. Don't expect, say, Pakistan to put up much of a fight, and the Williams kids are sure to out-dress them, too. Some of our boxers will probably kick ass before turning pro and selling their souls to Don King, and Gardner's long-anticipated rematch with Russian behemoth Alexander Karelin could produce a major tremor on Crete.

Otherwise, official advisors to American team members have warned all 550 of them not to wave the U.S. flag during medal celebrations, or to indulge in any other kind of jingoist antic. The Iraq war has sensitized other nations to U.S. political imagery, and it simply won't do to dump a keg of Molson into a storm sewer or burn Jacques Chirac in effigy. Of course, imposing emotional restraint on any high-strung athlete who's given years of sweat and blood for one moment of glory is like telling Rusty Wallace to take it easy down the backstretch at the Daytona 500. Look for some new and highly original modes of personal expression in Athens.

Will it all go well? Can it? The optimistic Greeks think so, and they're sticking to their story. Meanwhile, the worst-case American scenario -- short of a bloodbath, anyway -- has been dreamed up by no less an Olympic figure than Mark Spitz, the peerless American swimmer who won seven medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics. As Spitz sees it, any verifiable terrorist threat at the Games could provoke the U.S. team to withdraw -- even at the last moment. Sound implausible? Maybe, but Spitz was in the Olympic Village back in '72 when Black September terrorists slaughtered eleven Israelis. He heard the chatter and absorbed the ambient fear.

NBC, too, must have that nightmare in the back of its corporate mind -- no American team, no viewership -- but the darkest thought of all has to be that TV ratings here will shoot up if something horrible does happen at the Olympics and we're all compelled to watch it live. Let's not go any further with that one, though. Let's get that one out of our heads right now, okay? Instead, let's start putting the guest list together for that big party on the night of the team handball finals.

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