Threats to our own personal security are everywhere. It sure seems that way, anyways. This is not paranoia on my part, although come to think of it I still have problems watching a football game because when they get into the huddle I think they're talking about me. But that's my issue. The therapy helps.
For the organizers of the London 2012 Olympic Games, a big problem developed when the firm that was contracted to provide security couldn't hire and train enough people. The solution was to bring in the army. And now there are more British troops patrolling the streets of London than there are in all of Afghanistan. What I've found, however, having worked as a television producer at two Olympics and four World Cups of soccer, is that all the troops in the world aren't the key to public safety. It's intelligence gathering for prevention and attitude on the ground that counts.
My first experience with a world event was as a young man going to his first Games in Montreal 1976. And things sure have changed over the years.
The opening ceremony of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal were marred by the withdrawal of 25 African countries. They were protesting New Zealand's sporting links with South Africa.
The International Olympic Committee's refusal to ban New Zealand, whose rugby team was touring South Africa at the time, resulted in the boycott. South Africa had been banned from the Olympics since 1964 for its refusal to condemn apartheid. It was also the Olympics following the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich. Security was a big concern. But you didn't feel it. There was no real paranoia.
In fact, Israel played two soccer matches in Toronto's Varsity stadium. It was July 25, a warm and sunny day as I remember it. The quarterfinal saw Israel taking on Brazil in front of almost 19,000 fans. There were cops around sure, and you could see some heavies in and around the Israeli bench and dressing room doors. But it wasn't an overpowering presence. No metal detectors, no searches of bags. The security was subtle. People enjoyed the match, won by Brazil 4-1. People went home safe and happy. It was as it should be.
Calgary in 1988 was equally safe and secure. People smiled everywhere you went. You had a question or needed directions, someone was always willing to help. Plenty of drinking in the bars and restaurants but no drunken brawls or commotion. You got the distinct impression that the Olympics really did bring the world community together. And nowhere was this more evident than in Lillehammer in Norway in 1994, by everyone's accounts one of the best, if not the best, Olympics ever.
What was so good about it? The attitude of the Norwegian people. I was hired as the producer of the news and city features unit by CTV. which meant I was out in the streets every day instead of being stuck in the studio. Now that's the way to experience an Olympics.
The day before the opening ceremony, the reporter I was working with, John McKeachie of CTV Vancouver, had an idea to test the Norwegian security by talking our way into the outdoor stadium and walking to the top of the Olympic flame. There was one young cop standing guard. A quick exchange of cigarettes. Some smiles.
"Listen, do you mind if we just took a minute to go to the top of the Olympic flame?" I asked.
"No, I don't think its permitted" came the reply.
"Its just for a few seconds, for Canadian TV. You know, Canada and Norway, we're practically brothers."
More back and forth bantering. McKeachie and the cameraman, a great Australian expat named Richard, sneak behind us while I keep the cop busy talking. Sure enough, McKeachie gets to the top of the flame, flicks a bic lighter, Richard shoots it and we air it. The next day CTV Executive producer John Shannon gets a call from the RCMP, admonishing our team for making light of the Norwegian security. Apparently it went all the way to the Prime Minister's office. Mr. Chretien was not amused. It was good TV, though, and it showed that the Norwegians were laid back and cool, not incompetent. And there were no problems.
We worked really long hours for three weeks straight. It was a lot of fun. Iggy Pop played a small high school gym in Lillehammer one night. What a great night that was.
By contrast, Atlanta in 1996 was a disaster. Cops everywhere. Private security goons dressed all in black and pushing people around with clubs. I almost got into it with one of these baboons when he started to push me with a club, despite the fact that I had the correct and proper accreditation. I was ready to take a beating just to get a shot in at this guy, but my bosses at the CBC wouldn't have been impressed and I didn't want to go to jail so I walked away.
And, as history records, despite all the police and security on the ground, a bomb still went off in Olympic plaza. They arrested and charged an innocent man. And the real bomber was never caught. As I was saying at the beginning, it's about attitude. The Norwegians were cool and accommodating and there was no problem. The Americans were overbearing and controlling and karma hit back at them. At least, that's the way I saw it.
The Olympics are about money, corporations and television. The athletes are a secondary consideration. The stories of International Olympic Committee corruption and extravagance are well documented. With so much on the line, there has to be a huge security presence, we all understand the realities of living in the post 9/11 era.
But it's going to to be the attitude of the British public and Londoners in particular that will set these games apart. And having lived in that great city, I believe the citizens will rise to the challenge. And make these a memorable Games for all the right reasons. I keep thinking of the famous Ralph McTell song "Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London, I'll show you something to make you change your mind."
Security is just a state of mind.
Look at me, I didn't panic when someone hacked into my computer. I needed a new password with eight characters so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Just in time, too, the Olympics are starting and I'll be glued to the TV and following along on my laptop.