Until recently, the most interest about the Black Sea resort of Sochi was the staggering $51 billion tab the Russians are picking up to host the Winter Olympics in President Vladimir Putin’s backyard.
It’s a pricey party that will go down as the most expensive Olympics in history. It’s also a pet project for Putin, whose prestige will be on the line in February when the traveling carnival show that is the Olympics takes place just a snowball’s throw from his luxurious presidential palace.
And, despite pledges by Russia to make the games “the safest Olympics in history,’” it’s also the biggest target imaginable in a region unsettled by an Islamist insurgency.
If the prospect of going for the gold in Sochi wasn’t making Olympians nervous before, it should be now. Anyone planning to watch the show might think twice, too, no matter how often Russian authorities assure everyone that things will be just fine.
That was made clear this week when a top Chechen rebel warlord called on militants to disrupt the Olympics, describing them as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.” Doku Umarov told his followers to do everything possible to cause havoc at the games, a particularly chilling statement considering his group is blamed for bombing a Moscow airport, two subway stations and a train in different attacks over the last three years.
The response to the threat was both predictable and quick, with organizers and government officials saying 37,000 police officers and a complex and multilayered security system will protect both athletes and spectators in Sochi and its surrounding mountains.
“We get threats before every Olympics,” former Olympian Jean-Claude Killy, who heads the International Olympic Committee coordination commission for Sochi. “This cannot be taken lightly. I think the Russians are well equipped to face the challenge.”
They may well be. Olympic security has been an evolving science since Palestinian terrorists massacred Israeli athletes after invading the Olympic village in Munich in 1972. Aside from the bombing in Atlanta in 1996 that killed one person, the games have for the most part been extremely safe.
And, so far at least, U.S. athletes aren’t exactly panicking about the prospects of competing in Sochi.
“At this point we haven’t had anyone express concern,” said Patrick Sandusky, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “Security is always a top concern for us and our athletes and we take it all very seriously.”
Still, you have to wonder whose idea it was to plunk an Olympics into a region beset by an insurgency — no matter how much money is spent to protect it. The Russians will undoubtedly pull out all stops to make the games secure — athletes at test events in January and February talked about patrols of guards with assault rifles — but these won’t exactly be the laid-back Winter Games of 2010 in Vancouver.
Security questions weren’t even at the top of the list when Sochi won the Olympics in 2007, beating out Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria, in a secret vote by IOC members. Putin traveled to the meeting in Guatemala to personally lobby the members and lead the final presentation.
But the Islamic insurgency active in the North Caucasus mountains that tower over the seaside resort of Sochi presents a very real challenge, even for a security plan backed by the full weight of the Russian government. The two Chechen brothers charged with the Boston Marathon bombings showed that rudimentary bombs that are relatively easy to make can cause terrible damage even in a tightly secured area.
Big sporting events can make attractive targets, and they don’t get any bigger than an Olympics. Thankfully, Sochi has something going for it that Rio won’t when Brazil hosts the Summer Olympics in 2016 — a government security apparatus devoted to making the games incident free.
You won’t see it while watching on television and, in the end, the Olympics are just one long television show. Assuming there is snow in the mountains — another worry of the games — Sochi should look beautiful on TV and Putin will realize his goal of showcasing the aging resort city to the world.
No, it may not be the wisest place to hold an Olympics. But Olympic officials don’t always make the wisest choices.