Wednesday, May 5, 2004

A few prominent Americans already have announced plans to stay home and watch the Olympics from the comfort and safety of their couches. So far, none of them have been athletes.

But stay tuned.

With 100 days to go before the opening ceremonies in Athens, the place is still a mess. Roads are ripped up and construction crews snarl city streets. Last week, as part of a campaign to clean up Athens, officials announced residents would be fined for everything from flicking cigarettes onto the sidewalk ($24 a butt) to spray painting an archaeological monument ($9,520).

What has Americans jittery, however, are the things they don’t see.

“We were beginning to hear a lot of concerns about the preparations and whether we should go,” Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith said during a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday in Washington.

And soon after, as if on cue, three bombs exploded outside an Athens police station in the pre-dawn hours yesterday.

The series of timed blasts happened over the span of a half-hour and caused serious damage, but no injuries. An anonymous caller to an Athens newspaper provided several minutes warning, but no motive or claim of responsibility. Because the attacks occurred exactly 100 days before the games, everybody was left to draw their own conclusions.

What was a whisper a few weeks ago will probably become the subject of public debate. Smith made it clear he backs sending a U.S. team to the Summer Games, but adds that he’d be more comfortable with fewer “general assurances” and a lot more details about the safety of athletes and spectators alike. One of his colleagues, though, already has heard enough.

Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said the only place he will feel safe viewing the Aug.13-29 games is at home on a television. As if that weren’t unnerving enough, Kyl also happens to be chairman of the Senate committee on terrorism. No one on the U.S. team, from the athletes who will take the field to the top of the U.S. Olympic Committee, has arrived at the same conclusion — at least not publicly — and most are taking pains to say just the opposite.

Tennis star Serena Williams had no idea that she would make headlines around the world when she answered a hypothetical question by saying, “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.”

But the next day, she told reporters, “I’m very disappointed in you guys. 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.”

That was one measure of how delicate a subject U.S. participation has become. During a telephone call over the weekend, acting USOC president Bill Martin said he’d heard nothing through official channels — or unofficial channels, for that matter — to suggest the matter was even on the table.

He acknowledged that news reports confirming the International Olympic Committee had taken out a $170 million insurance policy to protect against cancellation due to war, terrorism or earthquakes had resulted in some speculation, and that an interview former Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz gave the BBC only fanned those flames.

“I would say that about six months ago it was highly unlikely,” the seven-time gold medalist said, “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.”

Martin attended a USOC dinner Tuesday night in Washington and could not be reached for comment on the latest developments. He planned to meet informally with Bush administration officials, but before leaving, Martin reiterated, “I can’t imagine a scenario at the moment that would change our plans to participate in Athens.”

After the U.S. decided not to send a team to the 1980 Moscow Games, a lawsuit brought by former Olympian and current American IOC member Anita DeFrantz ensured the final decision on participation would reside with the USOC. Martin insisted over the weekend that discussion hadn’t begun, and even those U.S. athletes who raised concerns about safety have insisted those wouldn’t keep them from competing.

Although he won nine Olympic golds during his career as a sprinter and long jumper, Carl Lewis told the congressional subcommittee that he still remembers the disappointment of being sidelined in 1980.

“Absent some clear and present danger, we should never take that course of action again,” he said. “Our athletes have been training for much of their lives for this very special moment. Let’s not take that away from them.”

The most encouraging thing about the debate sure to follow in the next 100 days is that so far it’s just that — a debate.

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