The 2018 Winter Olympics came to a close on February 25, 2018, but that wasn’t the end for U.S. athletes in South Korea. On March 9, the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics begins with Team USA competing in every event, and the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) will be there to protect those athletes.
Just like the U.S. athletes, DSS has been preparing for the Olympics for years. Weeks before the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, DSS was on the ground supporting the South Korean government and law enforcement officials to ensure a safe and successful Olympics and Paralympics.
“The start of the 2018 Winter Olympics was the culmination of several months of planning, coordination, and collaboration by numerous people at DSS and our host nation counterparts,” said DSS Director of Protection Rick Colón. “So many people contributed to making this year’s Games secure and successful, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.”
This is nothing new. DSS is the U.S. security lead for all major international special security events, including the Olympics and Paralympics, World Cup, Pan Am Games, and others. Through its Major Events Coordination Unit within the DSS Office of Protection, DSS heads the International Security Events Group (ISEG), a multi-agency body of more than 20 U.S. agencies that ensures the safety of U.S. citizens at major international events.
In September 2016, DSS established the Olympic Security Coordinating Office (OSC) managed out of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, to support the Games. Its lead, DSS Special Agent Craig Reistad and his deputy, Special Agent Mark Woods-Hawkins, have been coordinating with multiple stakeholders, most notably the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, the Korean National Police Agency, and ISEG representatives.
“Security for the Olympic Games is truly a team sport,” said Woods-Hawkins. “We all work toward the same goal: making sure the Olympics and Paralympics are safe and successful.”
At each Olympic Games, DSS oversees the safety and security of athletes from Team USA, U.S. corporate sponsors, and members of the U.S. media. Reistad, however, points out that security for the Olympics and Paralympics is the responsibility of the host nation.
“DSS is augmenting South Korea’s security efforts at the Games,” said Reistad. “We are here at the invitation of South Korea to support our partners’ efforts.”
On the ground, DSS had more than 100 people supporting the Olympics, including analysts and specialists at the OSC Joint Operations Center (JOC) at Embassy Seoul. They work around-the-clock to ensure the timely flow of information and coordination. DSS also had 40 special agents serving as field liaison officers (FLOs) at the Olympics venues, and will have 20 FLOs supporting the Paralympics.
“FLOs are the eyes and ears of DSS operations on the ground,” said Special Agent Karyn Grey, who supervises the PyeongChang “mountain cluster” venues, which includes the ski jump, snowboard competitions, bobsledding, and more. “We’re able to see the situation on the ground and relay that information back to the JOC so that it can be processed and sent to everyone involved in securing the Olympics.”
The FLOs coordinate and communicate daily with South Korean law enforcement, security personnel, and volunteers staffing the Olympics and Paralympics. They rely on their Foreign Service skills and cultural awareness to build relationships needed to ensure smooth operations.
“We arrive a few weeks before the Games begin so that we can get to know the people we’ll be collaborating with on a daily basis,” said Grey. “We work out all the kinks well in advance of the athletes arriving so that when they do, they have a safe environment where they can practice and compete.”
Adding to the challenge, the FLOs work long hours while facing some of the coldest temperatures and heaviest winds on record for a Winter Olympics.
While the Paralympics will finish in mid-March, that does not signal a rest for DSS.
“We’re already preparing for the 2020 Games in Japan, and have selected an OSC team for Tokyo,” noted Colón. “Just like we did for these Olympics, we’re already planning and coordinating with our partners to ensure that those Games are as successful as these have been.”
About the Author: Angela French serves in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Services at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.
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