Security and the Olympics Part 1: 9/11 and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics

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It was the morning of September 11, 2011 when Mitt Romney was driving past the Pentagon in Washington DC. The Pentagon was on fire, the smoke so extensive it filled Romney’s car. Romney was the head of the Salt Lake City Olympics Committee at that time, and was in DC to lobby, coincidentally, for more government support with security for the upcoming Winter Games to be hosted in Utah.

Romney immediately got on the phone with his COO, Fraser Bullock to talk “about the fact that in less than five months, we were going to host the world and how were we going to keep everyone safe.”

The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics went on to become, from a sports and business perspective, a relative success compared to other Olympics. But prior to the start of the Games, with 9/11 heavy on organizers’ and casual spectators alike, security was a major priority.

In fact, even if 9/11 had not occurred, the organizers and the US government had already invested heavily in security. After all, it was only about 5 and a half years earlier that a pipe bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta on the evening of the ninth day of the XXVI Olympiad. Over 100 people were injured, including two who died.

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Mitt Romney, President George Bush and IOC Head Jacques Rogge
While the budget for security in Atlanta was $101 million, it more than doubled to $225 million for the Salt Lake City Games, according to this New York Times article. The Winter Games that year saw a security presence unlike any other Games. More importantly, a wide variety of federal, state and local authorities were coordinated in a manner that had been unprecedented, the result of painful lessons learned about the consequences of various relevant agencies not coordinating information and efforts pre and post 9/11. Here are a few or the major decisions to boost security at Salt Lake City 2002, according to the Times article:

  • Secret Service agents will be used to secure all areas used for Olympic events. In the past, their role was confined to protecting the president and other dignitaries. The expanded presence represents the federal government’s largest security investment, $27.2 million, according to the government report.
  • For the first time in an Olympics in the United States — this is the eighth since 1904 — all law agencies, as well as military commanders, will operate as part of a unified Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.
  • Airspace over northern Utah will be heavily guarded, with AWACs surveillance planes on routine missions, F-16’s from nearby Hill Air Force Base on alert and added radar operating at Salt Lake City International Airport, where plans call for commercial traffic to be stopped at various times, including the opening and closing ceremonies.
  • In another new effort, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are pooling resources to create an instant check on foreign visitors through a database that will let Customs officers determine immediately whether an Olympic athlete or official is on a United States watch list.
  • In addition, military forces will be stationed in and around the city. Mr. Romney said the commitment could reach up to 10,000 troops, including more than 2,000 from the Utah National Guard, the largest call-up ever in the state.

On February 8, only 151 days after September 11, the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games commenced. In memory of the events that took place that beautiful Tuesday morning in New York, the tattered American flag that was recovered from the ruins of the Twin Towers was brought into the Stadium amidst an honor guard of Port Authority, NYPD and NYFD personnel who were in New York that day, with helicopter rotors thumping in the background.

Bullock said that there were objections from influential people about injecting a potentially powerful political statement like this particular American flag being displayed in an event that purports to be politically agnostic. But Bullock said that Romney had to twist a few arms to get to that decision because it “was the right thing to do.” And when the flag appeared, Bullock said, “the world really came together. It was a special moment for everyone.”