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Gary Mason

The real threat to the Olympics could be a bloody protest Add to ...

You don't have to be a disciple of dissent to be dismayed at the amount of money being spent on security for the Vancouver Olympics. The tab could easily exceed a billion dollars by the time the Games wrap up.

These are the turbulent times we live in, goes the oft-repeated response from Olympic officials when asked to defend the massive expenditure. To make the point, the U.S. State Department issued a warning last month to Americans planning to visit Vancouver to be vigilant for terrorist threats.

More recently, however, the view seems to be that the terrorist threat is actually quite low. I suppose that all any of us can really do is cross our fingers and hope that al-Qaeda is a sports-loving organization that wants to see how the Olympics turn out as much as the rest of us do.

But even if Osama bin Laden takes a pass on the Games, it doesn't mean others will. A protest planned for downtown Vancouver tomorrow will provide the first big test of the security measures.

With nearly 15,000 police and security personnel on the ground, being overrun by a motley band of anarchists is not a concern. The greater risk is a bloody confrontation that ends up marring the opening of the Games and casting a pall over the entire competition.

There may be police officers seconded to work these Olympics who are unaware of Vancouver's rich and controversial history of protests. On the final day of the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, student demonstrators and the RCMP had a violent confrontation. The Mounties used pepper spray liberally to quell the protest, which made news around the world. A public inquiry would later condemn the police actions.

A year later, 700 protesters showed up at a federal Liberal Party fundraiser at a posh downtown hotel. The demonstration descended into chaos, protesters were injured and eight people were arrested. The affair would be dubbed The Riot at the Hyatt.

Alissa Westergard-Thorpe and Garth Mullins played integral roles in masterminding both protests. More than a decade later, they're still at it.

Mr. Mullins plans to be on the front lines of tomorrow's march as it makes its way to B.C. Place in a bid to disrupt those trying to attend the opening ceremonies. (A number of protests are planned.)

Yesterday, I spoke to Ms. Westergard-Thorpe, who is one of the major architects of the group's battle plan. Any temptation to admire her dedication to the cause was negated by the fact that it was nearly impossible to discern what the cause is. Interpreting ancient Sanskrit might be easier.

For the record, Ms. Westergard-Thorpe said the group intends to show the world the "police and security repression" that the Games have imposed on the people living in Vancouver. They are also apparently angry about the "political world view" being imposed on the city along with "a certain mode of development and corporate priorities." As I say, apparently there is a real cause in there somewhere.

Regardless, things could get ugly. One of the protesters' goals, Ms. Westergard-Thorpe informed me, is to "disrupt VANOC's image control." So don't be surprised if the demonstrators try to deface Olympic symbols such as the Countdown Clock outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Although I suspect there will be tons of security around it.

But you can count on the group to attempt something provocative. A stage like this doesn't come around that often. David Eby, acting executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, was recently quoted in The Tyee webzine as saying the APEC gathering 13 years ago was small-scale compared with the Olympics. "There will be a huge number of tourists and visitors … so the potential for embarrassment is significant."

The potential for a significant police overreaction is there too.

That isn't to say people breaking the law shouldn't be held to account. But there are levels of everything, including the grounds upon which police justify dousing people with pepper spray and pulling out tasers.

The Mounties have promised a measured response to the protests. We all can only hope. That doesn't mean turning a blind eye to moronic activity that threatens the integrity of the Games or hinders people's ability to enjoy themselves.

Rather, it's an appeal for reason in the name of a greater good.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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