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Olympic security overload

If there's a successor to the overused, under-explained, now ubiquitous term "sustainability" it might be "security.

If there's a successor to the overused, under-explained, now ubiquitous term "sustainability" it might be "security."

Whistlerites are going to hear a lot about "security" in the next few months, as final preparations for the 2010 Olympics wind up and the Games themselves take centre stage. In fact, it came up at last week's council meeting, where the idea of keeping Whistler's licensed establishments open one extra hour during the Olympic period was opposed by the local RCMP.

"We have limited resources during the Games and policing the Games will already be challenging because our members will be responding to calls for service at the venues as well as in the village... and we don't want to give up having a presence on the road or in the community," Sgt. Steve Wright told council.

With all due respect to Sgt. Wright and the local detachment, who do a great job with the resources they normally have, it appears to those of us outside the world of security that this is one area that won't be short of resources during the Games. There is a $900 million budget for Olympic security. There will be police officers from across the country operating in Vancouver and Whistler as part of the security effort. There will be a few hundred soldiers camping in the woods around Whistler during the Games. There may be 1,600 private security personnel living in Whistler. There will be a frigate patrolling Howe Sound and aircraft ready to fly at a moment's notice.

Surely somewhere in that $900 million security budget there are the resources needed to allow bars and restaurants to stay open an extra hour.

But beyond the manpower that an extra hour of revelry in the village will require for a few weeks, Olympic security is difficult to define. Indeed, as a matter of security the exact steps being taken to provide security for the Olympics can't be disclosed publicly.

Similarly, security threats are only generally identified. Information on the activities of any terrorist organization or protest group is confidential, unless those organizations publicize it - as it should be. The last thing we need is another rendition of the Bush administration's ridiculous colour-coded terrorist alerts.

But we do know the RCMP, and possibly other security organizations, have identified individuals who may not be security threats but might cause disruptions. They've been interviewing these known opponents of the Olympics. In some cases this may be good, preemptive police work; in some cases it might be considered intimidation or harassment. That's one of the judgment calls made by the people involved in security.

The nature of security is that no one knows for sure who or what - or if anything - will threaten lives and safety during the Olympics. So the security experts make plans according to their best information and prepare all kinds of contingencies.

It's the same approach that has been used in major airports since 9/11. Metal detectors, which have been around since the '70s when people were hijacking planes to Cuba, were no longer enough. Now you had to partially disrobe before getting on a plane. Some nut tries to light a bomb in his shoe, so everyone has to remove their shoes before they get on a plane. A group attempts to smuggle explosive fluids onto a plane, so no one can carry more than a few ounces of fluids.

As the list of security threats grows the efforts made to counter them increases, because security trumps virtually all other concerns. Like sustainability, security is a motherhood issue. It's hard to argue against spending money on security - lives may be at stake.

But some are finally questioning this approach. At the International Olympic Committee's meeting last week in Copenhagen an IOC member suggested the security measures being taken for the 2010 Games may be excessive.

In the summer of 2006 Cesare Vaciago, CEO of the Torino Organizing Committee, suggested Olympic organizers could learn from "the humble sport of the masses." He noted that there were up to 80,000 people in the stadiums for World Cup soccer matches in Germany that summer, and no "mag and bag," the electronic security devices that everyone must now go through before getting on a commercial airliner or inside an Olympic venue.

"Throw away the mag and bag," Vaciago said. "The mag and bag is completely useless."

That's not going to happen in 2010 (there's an official mag and bag supplier to the Olympics and the contract to do the security screening at 2010 Olympic venues is worth up to $97.4 million, according to the Globe and Mail), but the sentiment is valid. How is a frigate in Howe Sound going to protect any Olympic venue or people going to an Olympic event?

And surely in that $900 million security budget there are resources to allow Whistler bars, nightclubs and restaurants to stay open an extra hour.