ATHENS, Greece -- The 2004 Olympics are the first sporting event I've ever covered that require an all-day security briefing and first-aid course.
"You need to take a grab bag everywhere," the security specialists hired by ESPN told us. "In it, you should have your first-aid kit, your passport, a torch, bottled water, a respirator and enough money to buy a plane ticket home."
A torch and a respirator? What, are some of the Olympic events being held at Yankee Stadium? And I'm supposed to carry around my passport and enough money for an emergency flight home? Sheesh, why don't I just pin a sign to my shirt that reads, "Hello, I'm an American on expense account -- treat me like your personal ATM."
Listening to this part of the security briefing and reading the full, itemized list for our grab bags -- phone, radio, GPS, security aid memoir -- was a bit like the scene in "Dr. Strangelove" when Slim Pickens describes the Air Force emergency survival kits:
- "In them, you'll find one .45-caliber automatic, two boxes ammunition,
four days' concentrated emergency rations, one drug issue containing
antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills,
tranquilizing pills. One miniature Russian phrase book and Bible, one
hundred dollars in rubles, one hundred dollars in gold, five packs of
chewing gum, one issue prophylactics, three tubes lipstick, three pair of
nylon stockings ... Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in
Vegas with all that stuff."
In other words, security is a major concern here. People are talking so much about possible terrorism that I think Al Qaeda is scheduled to light the Olympic cauldron today.
It's a little crazy. Greece is spending $1.5 billion just for security, or 15 times the security cost in Atlanta in 1996. There are about 70,000 security personnel, compared to 10,500 athletes, about a 7 to 1 ratio. And that ratio goes even higher if you include the posses of the U.S. basketball players.
Our security guys are former British special force soldiers, the equivalent of American Delta Force and Navy Seals. Aside from constantly monitoring the security situation, they provide us with helpful instructions on how to properly clear an air passage ("You may need to remove the vomit first") and how to best position a wounded colleague so you can tend to other colleagues with more serious wounds. ("If a victim is screaming, that means they're still pretty strong -- worry about the silent ones first.")
Don't get me wrong, though -- I like our security guys. For trained killers, they really are a fun, friendly group. They're not all doom and gloom and dire warnings, either. The security threat level posted in the office this morning reads "Green level: No terror threat." One guy even went so far as to assure me that the extent of a chemical attack will be severely limited because of the extreme summer heat.
So we've got that going for us. Which is nice.
There are transportation issues, though. At our security briefing, we were told to be wary of taxis. A friend, a meanwhile, was told at his security briefing to stay off the Metro. Everyone says to avoid driving at all costs. And the apartment manager here says to be careful walking.
"Greek drivers don't stop," he tells me. "I'm serious -- I know three people in critical condition because of car accidents."
I'm not sure where that leaves me, other than sitting in my apartment with the doors double-bolted, the windows duct-taped shut and a crucifix dangling from my neck.
* * * * *
Virtually every worthwhile element of modern life was first developed by the Greeks, with the notable exception of TiVo.
Mathematics, medicine, democracy, gyros -- we have the Greeks to thank for all of them. And, of course, the Olympics. They were first started here in 776 B.C.; and for the next 11 centuries, a military truce brought a halt to all wars every four years so that athletes could gather in peace to compete. Despite the many concerns about whether construction would be finished in time (a couple of workers were still painting a few objects outside the main stadium on Thursday), the Greeks have done a remarkable job integrating the old with the new.
History is everywhere, even in the new subway system that displays ancient artifacts at various stations. The Acropolis was lit up brilliantly last night when Carl Lewis and others carried the Olympic torch to a cauldron near the top. The stadium used for the ancient games, some 200 miles west of Athens in the town of Olympia, will hold next week's shot put competition. The 26-mile marathon route will be the same as that covered by Phillipides, who supposedly ran from the battle of Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a great Greek victory, then collapsed and died at the finish when he found out Nike had canceled his shoe contract.
(Nike, by the way, is the Greek goddess of victory, and the Temple of Athena Nike still stands on the Acropolis -- though I believe the swoosh was destroyed long ago by the Visigoths).
The ancient Olympics themselves died out (along with the Roman empire) late in the fourth century, bringing on the darkest age the Games would see until NBC's Triplecast. The Games were revived 1,500 years later in 1896, when Greece played host to the first modern Olympics.
Much has changed since those 1896 games. The 1896 Games cost Athens about $500,000. The current games cost at least $7.2 billion, about $650 per Greek citizen, which might explain why only half the tickets have been purchased. These people are simply out of money.
Meanwhile, steroids are such a part of the Olympics that I think the opening ceremonies will include the traditional runner carrying in the final shipment from BALCO. Security is such a necessary part of the Olympic scene that you keep expecting to see swooshes on the assault rifles.
When you consider all of this, it's easy to have two questions: 1) Who in his or her right mind would ever consider granting an Olympic bid to New York City? And 2) Given the cost, the construction hassles and the security risks, are the Olympics worth it any longer?
But then you think about American decathlete Tom Pappas, competing for the title of World's Greatest Athlete in the city from which his great-grandfather emigrated a century ago. And U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who will try to surpass Mark Spitz's mark of seven gold medals. And Greece's Pyrross Dimas, who will try to become the first weightlifter in Olympic history to win four gold medals.
And then there is the Iraqi soccer team, competing for the first time since Uday Hussein was in charge of the nation's Olympic team and tortured its athletes for poor play. Despite being forced to train abroad and play home games in other countries, the Iraqis qualified for the Olympics, then upset medal-contender Portugal 4-2 in a preliminary game on Thursday night. Ahmed Assamarai, the president of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, went so far as to say he anticipated that violence will stop in the country for those few hours while the Iraqis are playing in the Olympics.
Assamarai says that when the team marches in the opening ceremonies under the new Iraqi flag, it will be the happiest moment of his life. He says he will try not to cry, but that he anticipates every Iraqi cheering back home.
"This is a special moment in Iraqi lives. After 35 years of fear, and after the last 13 years of isolation from the rest of the world, Iraq is moving ahead," he said. "We would be very, very happy to win a medal, but our gold medal was received the moment that we qualified for the Olympics. To just be in Athens is our gold medal.
"We will give Iraqis hope and we give them pride. We give them something to achieve through sport. And when we go back, hopefully it will be better. ... It will bring Iraqi unity through sport. These Olympics give all Iraqis identification."
Well, that's the hope anyway, though the painful reality is that Iraq remains torn by violence. (As I write this, the lead headline on CNN.com is "Al-Sadr wounded in Najaf.") And there are serious questions about the high-profile position a former Uday "associate" holds in the new Iraq Olympic committee.
But the point is, there is an Iraq team here. And more, they just beat one of the best teams in Europe.
Empires rise and fall. Governments are wiped clean and replaced anew (welcome back, Afghanistan). Threats come and go. But sport endures.
The Olympics begin today. Seventeen days, 28 sports, 201 nations, 600 medals, 10,500 athletes (and, reportedly, 130,000 prophylactics issued to them). Shoot, a fella should have a pretty good time in Athens with all that stuff, if only you can cram it all into your grab bag.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com