America Militarized the 1980 Winter Olympics
The Pentagon set up state-of-the-art hardware to defend the games
The 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid is best remembered in America for the “Miracle on Ice” hockey victory over the Soviet Union. Less known is how scared the U.S. military was of terrorist attacks.
Today, it’s normal for major games to have snipers and sweeping, expensive surveillance hardware. This was far less common in 1980, but tragic events in Germany eight years prior had set events in motion.
During the 1972 Summer Olympics, the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich. Determined to prevent another terrorist attack, the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee asked the Pentagon to set up an electronic dragnet around the winter games.
Congress quickly freed up money for American troops to help protect more than 1,000 Olympians from nearly 40 countries. Adding to the tense atmosphere, the United States was threatening to boycott the upcoming Summer Olympics in Moscow. (It eventually did.)
“The entire … operation was conducted in an atmosphere charged with intense media concentration, in a multi-national ‘community’ of some 1,600 individuals, many from nations whose political ideologies are at variance with those of the United States,” U.S. Army officials explained in a subsequent review of their mission.
“It is safe to say that there are those who would have enjoyed any incident, regardless of how trivial, which would have resulted in embarrassment to the host nation.”
The media had already discovered reasons to be critical of the preparations at Lake Placid. For one, the athletes would stay in dorms adapted from a former low-security prison.
“A [Swank] magazine article published just prior to the opening of the Olympic Village alleged that all recent prior Olympic events had been plagued with both internal and external security problems,” the Army lamented in its after-action report.
The Pentagon collected intelligence from the FBI, CIA and the New York State Police. It pored through media reports and studied the lessons of the 1972 attack. Troops set up sensors, cameras, radars and night vision equipment to keep watch over the whole site.
On top of that, the Army installed lights, advanced communication systems and special alarms to help first responders in case something went wrong. The fact that the Bureau of Prisons had designed the site for its own purposes helped … to a degree.
“Now, in many respects a prison would appear to offer the ideal arrangement for counter-intrusion purposes,” the Army technicians explained. “However, this is not necessarily the case, because of the subtle design differences necessary to meet the goal of keeping inmates in versus keeping intruders out.”
Fences just weren’t going to cut it. “Contrary to popular opinion, conventional chain link fences, even those provided with barbed wire or tape, may be breached by a well trained squad of from four to five individuals in a matter off seconds,” the Army noted.
The Bureau of Prisons had deliberately built the facility in rugged, remote terrain to slow down prisoners who might break out. Security teams defended the dorms, but the terrain may have slowed down reinforcements if terrorists attacked the site. The Army wired lights and security cameras to a central command post — an easy fix. But guards with night vision goggles and telescopes still had to keep watch.
So the Army decided to deploy its high-tech Remotely Monitored Sensors — a.k.a. REMS — to help fill any gaps in the perimeter. A decade earlier, the Pentagon had tried to use these devices to spot North Vietnamese troops hauling supplies up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.
U.S. troops fielded earlier versions of the Miniature Seismic Intrusion Detector and the Magnetic Intrusion Detector — abbreviated MINISID and MAGID respectively — in Southeast Asia. MINISIDs registered vibrations from people or vehicles passing by, while the MAGIDs picked up large metal objects.
Other surveillance devices at the Olympic Village had microphones to report back suspicious noises, and infrared cameras that could see significant heat changes – like a person hiding among snow-covered trees. If someone tripped any of these sensors, an alarm would sound in the main security center.
There were several more layers of defenses. The Army set up small AN/PSS-15 radars to spot anyone who might exploit breaks the REMS layer. To stay warm, troops and police manning those positions could stay inside their vehicles with the engine on, which provided power to the radars.
From all accounts, the defenses held up during the games. A state trooper intercepted at least one suspicious person with the help of the Army’s closed-circuit television system and grilled them about their movements. “The interrogation was very effective, much to the consternation of the suspect,” the Army evaluators declared in the report.
Of course, the protective measures were far from perfect. Focused on protecting against terrorists, the troops did not put much effort into securing common areas against petty theft. All the squawking radios and the frequency-emitting REMS devices around the perimeter often conflicted with each other. In an emergency, these conflicts could have prevented important messages from getting to the right people.
And even with the Pentagon’s assistance, there still weren’t enough people to adequately work the command centers and posts. In turn, this created a “minor morale problem” among troops who volunteered for the assignment.
“The Army enlisted personnel on site observed the fact that many other ‘volunteer’ personnel were provided free access to events and transportation,” the Army noted among the lessons from the mission. The soldiers apparently missed the U.S. men’s national ice hockey team’s stunning victory over the Soviets.
Adding to this strain, to stay within the bounds of laws limiting the deployment of American troops domestically, New York state cops remained in charge of everything. Still, the Pentagon seemed happy to work with the police, and for the chance to experiment with its electronic surveillance toys.
And lessons from Lake Placid no doubt went on to inform, at least in part, America’s increasingly surveillance minded society.