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Nagano Works to Ensure Incident-Free Games

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 3, 1998; Page A1

 With the eyes of the world on them, officials in Japan say there will be 6,000 police officers from all over the country on patrol during the Olympics. (By John McDonnell/The Post)
NAGANO, Japan, Feb. 2 — Out in the frigid field house, behind the kerosene heater and a crate of dirty old baseballs, coach Akinori Yamadera keeps his three pitching machines chained to steel girders in the wall.

With the Olympics starting this week, the Nagano police have asked local high schools to keep their baseball-tossing machines under lock and key so terrorists can't steal them and use them as weapons.

"These machines can throw a ball at [96 mph], so you could kill somebody," Yamadera said, as the boys of the Nagano Commercial High School baseball team began their warm-ups on a snowy afternoon. "It's a one-in-a-million chance, but if anything happened it would be a disaster. If this machine were used in an act of terrorism it would be very embarrassing for Japan."

With the bloody bombing at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta still fresh in their minds, the organizers of the Nagano Olympics have spared no effort, as one police officer said, to "create a security net that even an ant couldn't crawl through."

Locking up pitching machines may seem excessive, especially in a small mountain city where crime is virtually nonexistent. But since the terrorist attack at the Munich Games in 1972 that left 11 Israeli athletes and officials dead, and the Atlanta bombing that resulted in two deaths and injured 100, organizers here recognize that the Olympics pose an especially tempting target for extremist groups and violent attention-seekers.

So Japanese hosts, following their natural instinct to plan down to the tiniest detail, are even asking merchants to record the names of anyone who buys large amounts of ink that could be used to deface Olympic sites or be tossed on a famous visitor.

"The Olympics is like a dream come true for us, and [locking up pitching machines] is a small but important way we can contribute," Yamadera said. "As the Japanese proverb says, 'If you prepare fully, you will have no regrets.' "

Japan is rarely the focus of the kind of positive international attention that will be concentrated on Nagano in the next two weeks. Usually when Americans hear about Japan, the issue involves cars or airplanes or something else causing tension between the world's two richest economies. Many Americans know little else about Japan, partly because Tokyo sits on the opposite side of the planet — so far away that when the Olympics open Saturday, it will still be Friday in the United States.

But suddenly Japan will be receiving nonstop television coverage of its ancient treasures, temples and myths — in English, in detail, in prime time and in living rooms across the United States, Europe and the rest of the world.

Elementary schools from Maryland to California are focusing their studies this month on Japanese history and culture. The flow of more than a million visitors has begun already into this city of 360,000 in the Japanese Alps northwest of Tokyo. People who barely knew where Tokyo was a month ago are now debating whether the Olympic site is pronounced "na-GA-no" or "NA-ga-no" or "NA-GA-NO" (Even the Japanese can't seem to agree on one.)

Japan is trying to capitalize on the opportunity for foreigners to begin to know Japan as something more than a big car factory or economic adversary. Japan's Foreign Ministry has new Internet home pages devoted to the Nagano Olympics, including one for children around the world to learn about everything from ninjas to the traditional snow dances that will be performed at the opening ceremony.

"It's a good thing for people abroad to focus on Japan for things other than economics, for things that might capture their imagination," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadaaki Numata.

But many here feel that all the good public relations will be worth nothing if the Games are marred by a criminal act or terrorist attack. "We are perceived as a stable country, and to lose something we are proud of would leave a big hole in people's hearts," said Noriko Yamada, 39, who runs a stationery shop.

Security officials here are especially concerned because of the parade of celebrities attending the Nagano Games. Emperor Akihito and other members of the imperial family will be joined by many European royals, including Prince Albert of Monaco and Princess Anne of Britain. Tipper Gore is scheduled to visit Nagano in the days leading up to the Feb. 22 closing ceremony.

Olympic organizers have asked travel agencies to turn over all the names of people who have purchased tickets for events imperial family members will attend. Presumably, they are combing the list of an estimated 150,000 names and telephone numbers for criminals.

Because of security concerns, organizers have not revealed exactly where athletes from individual countries will be staying in the 23-building athletes' housing complex. The location of each delegation is being kept confidential to protect against terrorists with a grudge against any particular country, but as some athletes began arriving here this week, they hung their national flags from their windows. Organizers are fretting, but so far they have refrained from issuing an anti-flag edict.

The 3,000 athletes are under constant guard; Japanese police remember the chaos caused when American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Metal detectors and security guards are stationed at all entrances to the athletes' village and at all competition venues.

The same kind of security surrounds the 8,000 members of the media who are flooding Nagano. Without the right pass, which is verified by a computer scan at every doorway, it is impossible to enter the huge media center where every major American media group has temporary offices.

As more foreigners have descended on Nagano, shopkeepers report a slight rise in thefts, a phenomenon some local residents blame on the outsiders. But even though theirs is a relatively safe society, the Japanese recently were reminded that terrorism is not necessarily an import. In 1995, a Japanese religious cult called Aum Supreme Truth spread poison gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people and sickening more than 5,500 others. Japan is also home to other extremists; last month, a member of a right-wing group angry about increasing foreign investment in Japan took a hostage at gunpoint at the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Officials say 6,000 police officers from all over the country will patrol Nagano during the Olympics, aided by 3,000 more professional and volunteer security guards and firefighters hired by the organizing committee. Expert skiers from Japan's military will also be on call to deal with emergencies.

Guns are so uncommon in Japan that the rifles used in the biathlon, an Olympic event combining skiing and shooting, will be kept locked in rooms guarded by a James Bond-like security system. To get in, athletes will have to pass through an optical scanner that reads the unique pattern of their irises.

Virtually all guns are outlawed in Japan. The few crimes involving firearms here are generally associated with Japan's yakuza mobsters. Japanese police carry guns, but Olympic security guards will carry only collapsible batons. Private hunting groups have been asked to stay far away from Nagano and its surrounding mountains, and the few owners of registered guns, swords and other licensed arms have received letters from police asking them to keep the weapons locked up for the next three weeks.

Merchants have even been asked not to sell fireworks until the Olympic torch has passed on. Authorities will also be keeping an eye out for a certain kind of combat knife that has become faddish among Japanese teenagers. A teacher in a city not far from Nagano was stabbed to death with one of the knives by a 13-year-old student last week; this week, a youth in Tokyo tried to stab a police officer with one to steal his gun.

Few here believe that anyone is going to haul a 250-pound pitching machine into the Olympic stadium to fire grenades at the emperor, or use national flags to target a sniper attack. But most people say it's better to be safe than sorry.

"It's like an earthquake — it's always in the back of people's minds, but you don't really think it's going to happen," said Haruo Machida, 43, a local government official.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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