Olympic lessons

Monday, September 1, 2008

I read this week in the Chicago Tribune that organizers who hope to bring the 2016 Olympic Games are watching the Beijing Olympiad quite closely.

Big lesson: Make sure you don’t have small children lip-synching songs during the opening ceremonies. People apparently think poorly of that.

But what lessons will they pull from Beijing’s security operations? According to reports, Chicago officials will visit Beijing roughly a month after the Games to get a briefing. What will Chicagoans come away with?
China will spend roughly $2 billion on security alone by the time the Olympics (and the following Para-Olympics) are all said and done. That bought 10-foot-high fencing around all of the Olympic venues, tightened security on all public transportation, and funded more than 100,000 security personnel, many of them manning scan-and-search stations equipped with Garrett metal detectors.

Is it possible that an American city would tolerate such security measures?

Of course, while Beijing invested in a new IP-based camera system from Panasonic, Chicago has already installed a surveillance system to rival it, just to deal with your average American urban crime.

And while the United States has been on vigilant alert for terrorist activity since 2001, China has not acquitted itself particularly well in prohibiting what they might very well label as terrorist activities.

While I fully support the right to protest, and free speech, the government of China does not, and so it must be considered a major security lapse that, according to the LA Times, two Britons and two Americans slipped into China in early August on tourist visas, spent a few days casing the area around Beijing’s National Stadium, “then at 5:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, quickly assembled climbing equipment and ascended halfway up 120-foot electricity pylons on a pair of slings ... [and] unfurled ‘Free Tibet’ banners as two female colleagues ran interference below.”

In another case, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders smuggled tiny transmitters into China, then crafted antennas from climbing equipment, and, “on the morning of the opening ceremony, several activists turned on the mini-transmitters simultaneously and broadcast a call for free speech,” blocking Chinese radio broadcasts.

And then, of course, there was the stabbing death of Todd Bachman, father-in-law of the U.S. men’s volleyball coach.

The Chinese can’t even win for trying. The placement of an armored personnel carrier outside the press center was widely criticized, and the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, said “they haven’t been able to manage the balance between security and creating that [fun] atmosphere.”

So how can Chicago manage that balance better? First by not promising (or trying) to prevent every violent act. No level of security can stop a rogue crazy person from doing something crazy. Second, by being much smarter about how people and objects are screened and profiled. Organizers have already said a Chicago plan would include several layers of intelligence activities, with officers looking for so called “DLRs,” or folks who “don’t look right.” By being more discriminating (in a good way), Chicago could be more efficient, more effective, and more fun, than their Chinese counterparts.