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A security staffer stands by a logo of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games before an event to mark the start of the 500-day countdown in Seoul, South Korea, on September 27, 2016. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Just as Olympic hopefuls train for years, the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) begins its security preparations well in advance of the actual games. With a number of U.S. and international players involved, creating a secure environment for the largest multi-sport event in the world is no easy feat.

But, DSS is well organized to handle complex events. DSS has a dedicated team – the Major Events Coordination Unit within the DSS Office of Protection – that solely focuses on organizing large international events such as the Olympic Games, the COPA Tournament, and World Cup to ensure the safety and security of U.S. citizens and diplomats participating in or attending the events.

It may seem odd that a Department of State entity has a major role in Olympic security preparations. However, given DSS’ global security mission and presence, organizing a major overseas event is a natural fit. Also, because DSS special agents are both law enforcement and members of the Foreign Service , they are uniquely suited to handle both security and diplomatic challenges that may occur before or during the games.

Kevin Wetmore, chief of the Dignitary Protection and Major Events Division, notes that DSS deploys dozens of agents to support international sporting events. They do not have explicit legal authority to perform security in the country; however, they are able to complete their mission because of their dual-hatted role.

“Our involvement in the games really highlights our agents’ cultural awareness and sensitivities, negotiation skills, and experience in operating in the international arena,” said Wetmore. “No other organization brings this unique blend of skills to the table.”

One of the first partners DSS began communicating with for Olympic preparation was the U.S. Pacific Command  (PACOM), whose area of responsibility includes South Korea. In addition to having a vested interest in a successful and safe 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games, PACOM has deep knowledge of U.S. interests and activities in the region. In December 2016, Director of the Office of Protection Rick Colón met with PACOM officials for initial coordination meetings and briefings, and has continued coordination with the command since then.

“South Korea is a little bit different than the 2016 Brazil games because of the geopolitical considerations,” said Wetmore. “There’s already a large U.S. presence in South Korea that we did not have in Brazil. Also, it’s a different flavor because these are Winter Olympics, which have a different set of safety concerns and planning requirements.”

For the 2018 games, DSS special agent and Olympic Security Coordinator Craig Reistad has been in South Korea since September 2016 and his deputy, Mark Woods-Hawkins, arrived in early February 2017. The two are working with multiple stakeholders, including the State Department-led International Security Event Group (ISEG), a multi-agency body of more than 20 U.S. agencies. ISEG leadership met with counterparts in December 2016 to visit the Olympic venues and discuss joint security preparations at the senior level.

“A lot of the folks supporting these Olympics have worked together previously at other major events and will bring their vast experiences with them,” said Reistad. He noted that while some law enforcement partners may conduct site visits, most won’t arrive in country until a week or two before the games begin.

In addition to U.S. partners, Reistad and Woods-Hawkins are working with international bodies such as Five Eyes partners, and South Korea’s law enforcement and security personnel.

According to Reistad, the preparations are going smoothly – due in part to the vast experience the team has in coordinating major events. This is Reistad’s first time spearheading DSS’ participation at a major international event; however, he spent a week in Brazil observing security operations for the 2016 Olympic Games. Woods-Hawkins supported the 2012 London Olympics and has participated in other major international event operations. Reistad added that the DSS regional security officer (RSO) and deputy RSO at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul have supported preparations for previous Olympic Games as well: “RSO Keith Byrne and D-RSO Paul Vallee have been very generous in sharing their combined experience.”

At the local level, collaboration with South Korean counterparts is going well. Reistad and Woods-Hawkins are working with Korean National Police Agency (KNPA) officials and the security office of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. As a best practice for major events, the OSC escorted a KNPA officer to Houston to observe security preparations for the 2017 Super Bowl and Super Bowl-related activities.

“The KNPA official saw how we prepare and manage when there are overlapping authorities, yet manage to create a seamless security bubble for events,” said Wetmore.

Reistad said that excitement about the upcoming games has started to build in the country. Once the one-year countdown began, Olympics posters and signs began springing up around Seoul; statues and cutouts of the Olympic mascots are popping up around shopping malls and other public locations.

Reistad and Woods-Hawkins will maintain focus on South Korea until the close of the games. However, DSS already has an eye out for the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

“We’re already engaging the Japanese by planning for them to observe joint operations during the 2018 games as well as seeking out training and exchange possibilities that will improve the security for all visitors and teams,” said Wetmore.

“Our goal is to enhance the host country’s security posture and marshalling of resources so there are no duplicative efforts. It requires constant engagement.”

Inside of the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games, under construction during the media tour in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 10, 2017. The opening ceremony for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games will be held on February 9, 2018. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The Ice Arena at Gangneung Olympic Park in Gangneung, South Korea, February 15, 2017. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Dancers wearing traditional Korean costumes perform during a concert to mark the one-year countdown to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics at Gangneung Olympic Park in Gangneung, South Korea, February 11, 2017. (AP/Wide World Photos)

U.S. Department of State

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