SOCHI — At the main train station in the nearby town of Adler, dozens of men and women wearing violet-colored uniforms pat down passengers on their way to platforms. Though they are outfitted in the same patchwork quilt uniforms worn by Olympic organizers and volunteers, these aren’t your average mag and bag security types. They are members of Russia’s military.
Welcome to the Security Games.
With the opening ceremony three days away, security experts are holding their breath following reports of Russian forces searching for three “black widow” suicide bombers and Internet threats from purported terrorists. Two months ago, two suicide bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd, 400 miles away.
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But locals don’t seem scared by such threats; the enormous police presence eases their fears. “We have more police and military than local people,” Stanislan Kulinich, the manager of an Olympic souvenir shop in the train station, said through a translator. “In the railway there’s more police than passengers.” In fact, there are more than 40,000 troops and police in Sochi, a city of 350,000.
The threat of terrorism at an Olympics is certainly not new.
“We had such a high threat scenario in the Winter Games 12 years ago in Salt Lake City just after 9/11,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said Monday.
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Even though there was a heavy security presence in Salt Lake City, the Olympic atmosphere wasn’t affected. “The same would happen here,” he said, adding he had confidence the Games would be safe.
But the number of security officials in Salt Lake City — 13,000 from federal, state and local agencies — was far smaller, according to Tom Ridge, the first secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, who worked those Games.
Before American skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace brought her two young children to Sochi, she was nervous because of all the talk about security. But now that she is here, her worries are gone.
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“We’ve felt very secure, very safe,” she said Monday. “It’s just felt normal. We’ve been able to drive our cars where we need to go. The security is high, and that makes me feel a lot safer, too. We just haven’t had any issues since we’ve been here.”
Pikus-Pace even brought her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to a news conference Monday. Afterward, they ran around the lobby of the media center as if on a playground at home in Utah.
Added bobsledder Chris Fogt, who is one of four U.S. Army soldiers competing in men’s boblsed in Sochi, “I think that they are trying their hardest and they are doing everything they can.”
Although many athletes say they aren’t worried about their safety or that of their families, there are contingency plans in place for visitors.
A private security firm founded by former members of the U.S. military’s elite special operations unit, Delta Force, is working with members of Olympic committees, corporate sponsors and sports fans traveling to Sochi. The firm, TigerSwan, is monitoring its clients’ whereabouts and has an emergency assistance team in place, James Reese, the company’s CEO, said Monday. TigerSwan will provide a device to track its clients’ locations via GPS. The firm says it can pinpoint a client within a 3-foot radius.
In recent months, it has become clear these are no ordinary Games. The State Department has issued a travel alert for the Games about the possible presence of “black widows,” the wives of militants killed by Russian security forces.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the USA would be ready to remove citizens in the event of a catastrophic terror attack. Senior administration officials said there was no specific evacuation plan for the roughly 10,000 Americans expected to attend the Games, but two Naval ships deployed to the Black Sea are at the ready should the need arise for a mass rescue.
The U.S. Olympic Committee sent a memo to athletes from the State Department cautioning them about wearing team uniforms outside of Olympic venues. The Australian Olympic Committee imposed travel restrictions on its team, advising athletes not to travel into downtown areas outside the secured perimeter.
Over the summer the leader of the militant group Caucasus Emirate urged Islamic separatists to use force to disrupt the Olympics, which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.” For generations, the area has been the center of ethnic and religious strife between native Islamic peoples and Russian forces.
“This is the only Games in history where there’s been an announced credible threat well before the Games,” said Bill Rathburn, the director of security for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, who has worked on security issues for cities, foreign governments, organizing committees and sponsors at six Olympics. “Since that threat was made last July, there’s been at least three terrorist incidents that have demonstrated their capability of carrying out that threat. So I think it’s very, very real.”
According to Brian Michael Jenkins, the senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and a longtime expert on the topic, the intensity of the threat is unprecedented because of the volatility of the region.
“It’s being held in an arena of two wars with active continuing terrorist campaigns,” Jenkins said.
Several experts said they believed the so-called ring of steel around these Games should keep the Olympics safe, but other areas in the country, perhaps transportation hubs, could be vulnerable.
Locals who work at the Adler train station echo that sense of security as thousands of visitors continue to arrive. Elena Panova, a barista at Go!Spresso, is as upbeat as the cheery messages on the chalkboard behind the counter.
“It’s great we have so much security,” Panova said. “Of course, in every country terrorism exists. The security is at a high level. God bless us. Think positive.”
With the Olympics a few days away, Panova is relieved the place is buzzing with a variety of customers instead of mostly troops. She’s also thrilled military members are no longer wearing their traditional “gloomy” uniforms, as they were a few weeks ago. The new garb is designed by Bosco, considered the Nike of Russia.
“Our military are in a special civil uniform,” Sochi organizing committee President Dmitry Chernyshenko said of the purple patchwork. “They look similar to Games’ organizers, but different colors. We will look like one team working for one atmosphere.”
Many of the officers are less than thrilled about a uniform that seems to exude all the authority of a mall cop.
“They are serious policemen,” Panova says. “Not all of them like dressing like volunteers.”
Contributing: Roxanna Scott from Washington and Erik Brady from Sochi.
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