At what price Olympic glory?

Tucked just under Erik Vendt's suit line is a modest tribute to those who died in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks: A tattoo with a circle frames the familiar towers and a setting sun illuminates the numbers 9/11.

"At the risk of sounding arrogant, we are the greatest country in the world," said Vendt, the 2000 Olympic silver medalist in the 400-meter individual medley. "Like any other American, 9/11 changed my life. I've always had a lot of pride in my country, but it really came out after that."

Vendt, 23, wouldn't dream of allowing the threat of terrorism to prevent him from participating the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens this summer.

"One thing I refuse to do is live in fear," he said. "The terrorists' have one goal, which is to disrupt our way of life. The worst thing we could do is not go to the Olympics. You know, if you scare us, we'll back down."

After his swimming career, probably following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Vendt said he intends to follow his father's career into military service. He already has initiated a dialogue that he hopes will lead to a position with the U.S. Navy SEALS.

Vendt may be a poster boy for the red, white and blue, but he is also realistic.

"Of course you always have to be wondering what might happen," he said. "I'm living in L.A. -- something might happen here tomorrow. We just had a briefing in Colorado Springs to quell the fears of some of the athletes. I was in Sydney and the security was unbelievable. The security in Greece is going to dwarf that.

"I honestly think Athens is going to be the safest place on the planet from Aug. 13-29."

While Vendt is one of America's more outspoken Olympians, his damn-the-terrorists attitude is voiced -- publicly, at least -- by the majority of the estimated 566 U.S. athletes who will participate in Athens. They have worked too hard, too long, they say, to be deterred by the threats of terrorism that hang heavily over Europe's oldest capital.

And yet, less than 30 days before the opening ceremonies of the first Summer Games since the Sept. 11 attacks, there are still more questions than answers concerning the safety and security of the 11,000 athletes representing a record 202 participating countries. In recent years, the Olympics have become a stage for political and sometimes bloody expression. Eleven members of the Israeli delegation died at the 1972 Munich Games, at the hands of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. In 1996, a pipe bomb exploded in the Olympic village in Atlanta, killing one person and injuring 110 more.

Greece, which shares poorly patrolled Balkan borders with Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey, occupies an extremely volatile place in the world. The country is a peninsula surrounded by the Ionian, Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and, therefore, vulnerable to naval traffic. The country has a recent record of anti-American sentiment.

With venues still yet to be completed, Greece's utter lack of coordination and organization has hardly inspired confidence. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge confirmed in April that the IOC had secured a $170 million insurance policy in the event of partial or full cancellation of the Athens Games. Coverage includes allowances for natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, and terrorism. The train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid, Spain in March were said to be a major factor in the IOC's decision to seek insurance.

Greece's budget for security approaches $1 billion -- more than three times what was spent at the 2000 Sydney Games. NATO, the European Union, the CIA and FBI of the United States and similar organizations from England, France, Spain and Israel also will be involved.

"This is an unprecedented effort," Rogge said. "More cannot be done. Nobody can guarantee 100-percent security, but we can guarantee that we've done everything that was available and possible."

Some officials, however, have gone so far as to guarantee that there will not be an incident.

"I want to be clear," said Greek prime minister Costas Karamanlis. "Our main concern and highest priority in Olympic preparations is to secure the complete safety of the country, of athletes and visitors.

"Greece will guarantee safe Games."

Nevertheless, 80 percent of Greeks recently polled said they believe some kind of attack is "inevitable." Fifty-two percent of Americans polled said they believed an attack was likely. That was long before Greek authorities this week without its final payment to the U.S. security firm that is charged with protecting Olympic venues and facilities, citing fear that security measures may not be implimented in time for the Games.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has visited Greece to confer with officials about security, issued a warning in March that there was the risk of an al-Qaeda attack in Athens during the Games. U.S. Senator Jon Kyle, R-Arizona, the chairman of the Senate committee on terrorism, said he wouldn't feel safe watching the competition in Athens and would opt to watch at home on television.

According to Larry Buendorf, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of security, American athletes will fly to Athens on flights with enhanced security. An evacuation strategy also has been developed. U.S. officials have advised American athletes not to wear their colors when they are not competing. And a number of athletes have said they do not plan to leave the confines of the Olympic Village.

American swimmer Michael Phelps, who is eyeing Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympiad, did not sound apprehensive at a recent press gathering in New York. "I think over the past year, the security has gotten more stronger and I feel comfortable right now," he said. "I'm definitely ready to go to Athens."

A spokesperson for USA Swimming also downplayed the potential danger: "You're going to get the same quotes over and over. The athletes are ready to compete and are leaving security concerns in the hands of the experts. It's a non-issue for athletes -- more media hype than anything else."

As if delivering a reminder of how quickly the Olympics are approaching, three bombs exploded as dawn broke in Athens on May 5, damaging a police station but causing no injuries.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the date marked the 100 days coundown to the Games' opening ceremonies, though officials insist the explosions were unrelated to the Olympics.

Nerves showing?
It was a seemingly innocuous question, a parenthesis in a post-match press conference at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Florida. Was the threat of terrorism, Serena Williams was asked, enough to dissuade her from participating in Athens?

"I think my security and my safety and my life are a little bit more important than tennis," replied Williams, the defending doubles gold medalist, along with her sister Venus. "If it became a real concern to where I personally wouldn't feel comfortable, then I wouldn't go to Athens because I like my life, I like to live, you know, I like waking up in the morning."

It was a typically glib response from Williams. Although it was clear to observers in the complete context of her remarks that Williams wasn't concerned -- she used the word "if" -- it still created headlines around the world, suggesting that Williams was thinking of staying home. The reports left people wondering how nervous the athletes actually were about competing in Greece.

The next day, Williams chided the press for distorting her words.

"I'm very disappointed in you guys," she said. "I woke up this morning and I'm on the cover of USA Today, saying 'Serena is unsure if she's playing the Olympics.' I never said that.

"I'm 100 percent planning on going to Athens."

Recently, Venus Williams reinforced her sister's declaration, saying, "I think as a team we have the potential to get gold in doubles."

To date, only a handful of American athletes have begged off invitations to compete in Athens, citing concerns for their safety. This hasn't prevented some of them from expressing very human doubts over the climate they anticipate in Athens.

"The players are definitely concerned," Jermaine O'Neal, the Indiana Pacers forward and a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, told The Associated Press. "It definitely sits on your mind. If you wanted to send a message to the world, what better place is there to do it?"

Ray Allen of the Seattle SuperSonics sounded weary when he shared his Olympic vision.

"There will be bomb-sniffing dogs and shady characters," Allen told the AP. "From the American side, there's only so much we can do as far as security. They have to take care of their part before we get there."

USA Basketball's plan to use the Queen Mary 2, docked in Athens' busy harbor, for living quarters inspired memories of the USS Cole, an American destroyer that was attacked by al-Qaeda in October 2002. A small boat armed with explosives rammed the ship in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

"The only thing I can think of," Allen said, "is the battleship that got blown up."

Craig Miller, a spokesman for USA Basketball, said the organization was comfortable with the security in place but added, "In this time and day, if you're not concerned, you need to be. Our players should feel secure that we've done a good job."

John Register, who will compete in the Paralympic Games in Athens, said he feels secure.

"As an athlete, you try and minimize all the distractions," said Register, 39, manager of the USOC's Paralympic Academy in Colorado Springs and a Paralympic medalist in both swimming and track in Atlanta and Sydney. "The long jump is on Sept. 21st, at six o'clock. That's what I'm thinking about right now.

"Sure, I think of those [threats]. But at the same time, you can't live in fear. I'm not one to adjust anything in my life to things that are happening in other parts of the world. The whole Olympic movement is about competition and esprit de corps. I'm not going to let worrying ruin the joy of competing."

Karamanlis acknowledged the birthplace of the ancient and modern Olympic Games faced "choking deadlines."

In April, Greece missed an IOC deadline to begin setting the 18,000-ton steel roof over Olympic Stadium -- a centerpiece structure that is becoming the metaphor for Greece's seemingly laissez faire attitude toward the Games. The IOC, which has increasingly taken control of coordinating construction, set a new deadline of May 20. The IOC's $170 million does not cover construction delays.

The roof is only one of a number of bad omens.

The first gold medal of the Games could be earned shortly before 4 p.m., Athens time on Aug. 14. It's in shooting: the men's 10-meter air pistol.

A political stage
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich are remembered for two disturbingly polar events: the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches and the seven swimming gold medals won by Mark Spitz. Earlier this year, Spitz said he believed the United States was still open to the possibility of keeping its Olympic athletes at home.

"We are looking under the microscope at all the different terrorist acts," Spitz said on BBC Radio 5. "We know there is a high degree of probability that something could happen in Athens. Would that be political suicide to send a team there if you were the Bush administration? If you were to yank the carpet out from under the American team and nothing happened, would that be because they are only after the Americans?

"I would say that about six months ago it was highly unlikely, but each day as it goes on with current world affairs it becomes more probable than not that ongoing conversations will take place as to how important it is to put athletes in harm's way."

A USOC spokesperson insisted that there was "absolutely no consideration given to the notion our team will not be in Athens."

Our romantic views of the Olympics are driven by the notion of noble competition and the spirit of cooperation among nations. In reality, however, the Olympics represent an international stage to display superiority on the athletic field and everything else that implies about a country's way of life. Sport has always endured more than its share of war metaphors, but there is a kernel of truth in the comparison. When the African-American sprinters of the United States triumphed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, hoisting the American flag was a symbolic blow to Adolph Hitler. The Olympic battles between the Soviet Union and America during the cold war seemed to have greater implications than medals alone.

In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter directed an American boycott of the Moscow Games, but given President George Bush's pro-active history in foreign affairs, it seems unlikely -- absent a catastrophic event -- the team would not travel to Greece. Clearly, the majority of the athletes feel the same way.

While a number of NBA players already have won Olympic gold, for a number of American athletes Athens represents their best chance for glory -- perhaps their only chance.

Ron Siler, the 112-pound flyweight who will represent the U.S. in Athens, said staying home has never crossed his mind.

"We never talk about it," he said of his fellow boxers. "I think the security's going to be OK. I just worry about winning the gold."

Perhaps more than almost any U.S. Olympian, Tyree Washington is looking forward to Athens. The 29-year-old sprinter was the favorite to medal in the 400 meters at Sydney, but failed to make the U.S. Olympic team. A trip to Athens would offer comfort and symmetry; seven years ago, he won a bronze medal in the 400 meters at the world championships there and anchored the winning 1,600 relay.

"I know there are security issues," he said. "Everybody's talking about it -- there are rumors of the U.S. boycotting. After 9/11, we know terrorism can happen anywhere. The thing for me is to stay focused. To make my first Olympic team would be a dream come true."

Washington is likely to be the favorite to win gold in Athens. He won the world indoor title last year and placed second in the world outdoor championships in Paris. His two best times in 2003 (44.33 and 44.42) were the two fastest 400-meter times in the world. His dream after the Olympics is to play in the NFL -- the San Diego Chargers, Oakland raiders and New York Giants are all interested -- but for now he is aiming for the Olympic Trials in July.

"This is my shot, my big chance," Washington said. "I'm more mature and humble and hungrier than I was four years ago. Most athletes, most people, don't get a second chance in life. I truly believe that if it's your time, it's your time. There's nothing you can do about it."

Like Washington, Vendt has done his due diligence in terms of preparation. He swims approximately 20,000 meters each day in morning and evening sessions -- a staggering distance even for a world-class swimmer -- and spends another hour running up and down bleachers or tossing a medicine ball. Bored in a class one day at USC, Vendt tried to calculate how many hours he had spent in pools and had to stop because his mind was "boggled."

He was born in Boston, but moved with his family to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, when he was 2. His father, Bill, had served in the Army in Vietnam, but took a job as a defense contractor for Raytheon. The barracks in which Vendt lived for seven years were destroyed by terrorists last summer.

"They blew up two compounds," Vendt said. "Fifteen years after the fact, it still struck really close to home. It was kind of a little scary."

Through a USOC connection, Vendt was able to watch the U.S. Navy SEALS train in San Diego last year and joining that elite operation is his next goal after swimming.

"In school and in swimming, I've always accomplished my goals," Vendt said. "I really aspire to be part of the Navy Seals. It's like in swimming; I want to improve my result from Sydney by one spot. That's what I've been thinking about for four years.

"I wouldn't be bringing my family along if I didn't think they'd be safe in Athens. I believe in my heart that everything will be OK."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com