September 11 attacks cast fears for Salt Lake City Olympics: Recalling the horror, Olympic security worries

Salt Lake City organizers added 22 security “enhancements”, many of which are now permanent items in the playbook for the Games.

(FILES) This file photo released by the New York City Office of Emergency Management on September 13, 2001, firefighters and Urban Search and Rescue workers battle smoldering fires as they search for survivors at the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York. - The remains of two more victims of 9/11 have been identified, thanks to advanced DNA technology, New York officials announced on September 7, 2021, just days before the 20th anniversary of the attacks. The office of the city's chief medical examiner said it had formally identified the 1,646th and 1,647th victim of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York's Twin Towers which killed 2,753 people. (Photo by ANDREA BOOHER / FEMA / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /New York City Office of Emergency Management" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
(FILES) This file photo released by the New York City Office of Emergency Management on September 13, 2001, firefighters and Urban Search and Rescue workers battle smoldering fires as they search for survivors at the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York. - The remains of two more victims of 9/11 have been identified, thanks to advanced DNA technology, New York officials announced on September 7, 2021, just days before the 20th anniversary of the attacks. The office of the city's chief medical examiner said it had formally identified the 1,646th and 1,647th victim of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York's Twin Towers which killed 2,753 people. (Photo by ANDREA BOOHER / FEMA / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /New York City Office of Emergency Management" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

The 9/11 attacks shook the world 20 years ago, casting doubt and worry about the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City just five months away.

Anita DeFrantz, senior IOC member in the U.S., remembers the fright she felt watching the World Trade Center crumble that day.

“I thought we were at war. I began to get calls asking if the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games were in jeopardy. I responded I had no answer to give since our entire nation was potentially in danger.

“It was the most frightening day and following days for my nation that I had experienced in my lifetime,” DeFrantz remembers for Around the Rings.

Francois Carrard says he was horrified by what he saw on the TV in his Lausanne office. Then the director general of the IOC, Carrard says he could not believe the images from the U.S. he was seeing.

“I could not understand what was happening,” he recalled this week to ATR. “The horror, I could not believe it was real,” he said.

Carrard and the IOC were soon in touch with organizers of the Salt Lake City Olympics. They too were in disbelief.

“We huddled in my office with senior staff and watched the second plane hit the towers,” Fraser Bullock tells ATR. He was chief operating officer of Salt Lake City 2002.

After trying to digest the tragedies of the attacks, Bullock says the conversation pivoted to “what will this mean for our Games?”.

“We knew there would be people questioning whether these Games could be held safely or not. But we all were resolute that the Games should go on.”

Salt Lake City cauldron (ATR)
Salt Lake City cauldron (ATR)

Missing from the first crisis meetings in Salt Lake City, at least in person, was CEO Mitt Romney. Ironically he was in Washington. D.C. at the time, meeting with government officials on security and other details for the Olympics. Romney was one of the millions of people around the world stranded in the aftermath of the plane attacks when all aviation was temporarily grounded.

Meetings of the IOC set for September were delayed as a result of this aviation stoppage. It was a week after the attacks that the seven international federations in the Winter Olympics were able to meet with IOC President Jacques Rogge, less than two months into his term, and the rest of the IOC Executive Board in Lausanne. A brief statement affirmed total support for Salt Lake City.

“As to the issue of security, the IOC and the International Winter Sports Federations pledged to fully cooperate with all competent authorities and SLOC, so that all participants, including qualified athletes, may attend and perform their Olympic function at the Games,” said the statement.

In Salt Lake City, Romney had managed to return and was meeting with Utah’s governor, the mayor and other government leaders.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft and SLOC President Mitt Romney at a security briefing in late 2001. (Ed Hula)
US Attorney General John Ashcroft and SLOC President Mitt Romney at a security briefing in late 2001. (Ed Hula)

“I believe the Olympics is one of the great symbols of humanity and Salt Lake City will show that we have not bowed to terrorism,” Romney said at a Sept. 18 press conference.

Romney, now a U.S. Senator from Utah, noted that every Olympic Games comes with concerns about security. Salt Lake City was ready, he insisted.

“Our security plan is robust and complete and does not have holes,” he said.

Bullock says the Salt Lake City plan did not change significantly following a weeks-long review of security. But he says 22 “enhancements” were added. Among them, stationing National Guard personnel at each mag and bag entrance which were to be manned solely by volunteers. Private aircraft headed to Salt Lake City were required to travel via a gateway airport on the way so that the plane could be inspected and cleared to fly on to Utah. All airspace above the Olympic Stadium was declared a no-fly zone during the opening and closing ceremonies.

Bullock says many of these enhancements are now permanent items in the security playbook for the Games.

President George W. Bush delivered personal assurances that the U.S. government would do all that was necessary to protect the Olympics during an Oval Office visit by the IOC president in October. Carrard, who was at the meeting, says that pledge made it easier for Rogge to deliver his assurances about Salt Lake City when he met with Olympic sponsors in the days after.

Bullock says the unquestioned backing of the Bush White House was a confidence booster for Salt Lake City organizers, too.

“We were trying to reassure our different constituent groups that we could keep them safe. Because there were some who were concerned about security. Should we come? Should we cancel? These were some NOCs and sponsors, so we had to work on reassuring them that they would be safe.

“They all came,” said Bullock.

As goes the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the 20th anniversary of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games will follow in five months.  While commemorating a successful Olympics, the anniversary will highlight the emotional connections with 9/11. Opening ceremony included the display of the tattered Ground Zero U.S. flag carried by a group of U.S. Olympians.

Bullock and Romney should be around to mark the anniversary but the protagonists from the IOC are dwindling.  Several members of the IOC Executive Board from 2001 are deceased, including former ski federation president Gian Franco Kasper. Most notably missing is Rogge who served from 2001 to 2013 as president before retiring. He died August 29.  His successor, Thomas Bach, was in his first term as an EB member in 2001. Of the 103 current IOC members, Bach is one of the dozen or so who were in office on Sept. 11, 2001.