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Fun in the Sun? Militarizing the Summer in Greece

March 1, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

Just imagine: you’re sitting on the veranda of a Greek restaurant, enjoying the balmy summer air with your beloved. Hands clasped, savoring the moment, you sip wine and follow the sun as it sinks out of view- behind a NATO navy destroyer. At that moment, the whispering breeze gives way- to the chopping whine of an attack helicopter buzzing low over the rooftops. Meanwhile, an unpiloted drone hovering in the distance films everything in the city below- including your intimate candlelit dinner.

Sound romantic? This may well be the reality awaiting visitors to Greece this summer, as the arrival of the Olympic Games forces the government to dramatically and conspicuously increase the presence of security personnel in Athens and the surrounding areas.

“…The challenge for the authorities is to handle security for the Olympics as effectively as possible but without having to turn Athens and the sports venues into a military zone,” Defense Minister Yiannis Papantoniou told the Financial Times.

Indeed. Yet considering that Greece will be crawling with almost 100,000 troops and police on alert, and ships from the US 6th Fleet patrolling offshore, do they really believe this is possible? No wonder the Greek government decided to unveil the finalized security plans only after next Sunday’s critical elections. Now that NATO cooperation is being discussed, and the prospect of both the Americans and the Turks conducting naval operations in Greece’s waters has been confirmed, the whole security topic is an unpopular one with the average man on the street. There is a feeling that security fears are going to cause unsurpassed aggravation for nearly everyone trying to go about their business in the Athens area. On top of that, authorities fear that “anti-Olympic” protestors against globalization plan to make mischief during the Games as well.

The security arrangements have been obsessively led by unpopular countries like Israel, the US and Britain, all of which fear a terrorist attack from Islamic extremists. The build-up could have some long-term benefits, however. For example, Greece wants NATO to ring-fence its borders for the games- and hey, if they go to all that trouble, why not just leave the fencing up? It could help keep out all those pesky illegal immigrants.

So far, the government has been able to sell NATO participation to its people by stressing the allegedly inconspicuous “stand-by” nature of their assistance. NATO has long had a deep-water base at Souda, on the north coast of Crete, and this existing operational headquarters is now stockpiling emergency survival supplies. As well as having the Turks patrol the eastern Aegean, there are plans for the Italian navy to supervise the Ionian Sea, according to the Financial Times. The alliance is also set to provide Awacs surveillance aircraft to monitor Greek airspace.

So how much will this whole production cost? Organizers are counting on a security tab of at least $750 million, “…more than three times the amount spent at the Sydney games four years ago.” An American company, SAIC, has a $250 million contract with the Greek government, and is supposed to “…install equipment and manage surveillance of more than 100 games-related sites,” according to the Financial Times. Some of these are even underwater. The project is being led by a former FBI agent, David Tubbs, who also ran the security show at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

However, says the FT, “…delays in awarding equipment contracts will mean a last-minute rush to train the 40,000 police, coastguard and emergency service staff who will work round the clock for the two weeks of the games.”

This should come as no surprise, considering the oft-stated Greek habit of leaving things until the last minute. Fortunately, the sporadic but concerted Hellenic effort usually succeeds in the end. But the perceived lackadaisical preparations have unnerved the more efficiency-minded Westerners involved.

The most conspicuous military buildup is course set for Athens and its environs, where most of the tourists will stay and where the athletic events will be held. The government is planning to delegate approximately 10,000 troops to this area alone- “…including a special force being trained to combat chemical, biological and nuclear attacks.” Add to this the 40,000 or so troops patrolling the borders, plus the NATO stand-ins, and you do indeed get up to a six-figure amount- meaning, when you factor in the tourists, about 1 soldier for every 130 civilians.

While security is no doubt a vital and pressing concern, the potential excesses of August 2004 may leave many tourists wishing they had avoided the Games altogether. An anticipated surge in prices, congestion and traffic, as well as a dearth of accommodation and the ubiquitous summer heat, will also dampen the visitor’s spirits.

Even for those who take refuge in other parts of Greece, far from the madding crowds, the conspicuous military buildup might be impossible to avoid. Paradoxically, the very event that was intended to display Greece at its Hellenic finest might just come off looking like a gritty, open-air exhibition for defense contractors.

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