As head of the Utah Sports Commission, Jeff Robbins had an insider’s perspective as security preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics intensified after the 9/11 attacks, less than five months before Salt Lake’s opening ceremony.
Then, in the summer of 2003, he helped lead a delegation of 253 high school students to Russia for the Utah-Moscow Youth Games — just nine months after Chechen rebels took 850 hostages at a Moscow theater, sparking a confrontation with authorities that left 170 dead.
Utah’s Olympic boosters
The Utah Sports Commission, a quasi-state agency charged with bringing national and international sporting events to Utah, will send a delegation to Sochi “so everyone knows we’re continuing to stay involved in the Olympic movement,” said commission president Jeff Robbins, citing Utah’s clear expression of interest in staging the Winter Olympics again.
“It’s a lot easier to stay in the movement than to leave and get back in,” he added.
The state’s team includes Robbins, businessman Steve Price, former legislator and real-estate official Al Mansell, Spencer Eccles from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and Eric Heiden, the five-time gold medalist in speedskating who now has a medical practice in northern Utah.
Those two experiences have convinced Robbins that organizers of Sochi’s Winter Olympics, which begin Friday, will not have the same reservations as the 2002 team about using massive displays of force to prevent a terrorist attack.
"There’s no question they have significant human assets to throw at security," said Robbins, who will attend the Sochi Games along with a half dozen other Utahns promoting the state’s ongoing involvement in Olympic sports. "But I don’t think they’ll have the level of sophistication that we had here."
The security plan for the Salt Lake City Games was fully developed when the 9/11 attacks shook the world and prompted questioning about whether the Olympics should go on. The decision to proceed was reached quickly, with pledges of additional federal financial and military support providing extra assurance that the security plan was sound.
"The learning curve was moved forward to make sure that [kind of attack] does not happen again," Robert Flowers, who helped direct the multi-agency Utah Olympic Public Safety Command and later headed the U.S. security force for the Utah-Moscow Youth Games, told The Tribune on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.
Flying restrictions were implemented within a 45-mile radius of Salt Lake City and all Olympic venues. The number of military and law-enforcement personnel assigned to the Games increased from 6,500 to 10,000.
Utah National Guard soldiers were brought in to patrol airport terminals. Special screening equipment was installed at Salt Lake City International Airport to look for bombs in bags.
To enter sports and some non-competition venues, people had to go through metal detectors monitored by soldiers, not volunteers. Biometric scanners were used to identify athletes and officials who had access to more sensitive areas. Special military forces concealed themselves in the woods around skiing venues, on the lookout for intruders.
"There was always the big discussion about whether these would be the Olympic Games or the ‘Security Games.’ It was really a tough balance to meet security and maintain that Olympic environment," Flowers said.
"We wanted people to know there was extreme amount of effort going in to security, but once they were inside the venues, they would be as safe as we could possibly make them. We didn’t want people looking over their shoulders every time a bag popped," he added. "I think we hit a really good balance."
Robbins does not expect to see a similar balance in Sochi.
"I’m sure they’ll have soldiers everywhere. It will be more of a show of force," he said, predicting the "Ring of Steel" being set up around Sochi by Russian security officials will leave visitors to the upcoming Games feeling like many 2002 celebrants — that they were in the safest place on Earth because of the security presence all around.
But Robbins also knows that Sochi is in a volatile region with many extremists eager to embarrass Moscow. He shares a concern that the concentration of force around the Olympics will leave other parts of Russia vulnerable to attack.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.