While the 100th Olympic Games began Thursday with a few preliminary events, the “official” start is Friday as Russia welcomes the world to Sochi with the elaborate opening ceremonies. For the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Russian government, the hopes are that as the game progress attention will be centered on the medal counts and not body counts.
It’s not like there have not already been considerable distractions leading up to the Games. President Vladimir Putin sparked Western criticism with Russia's law banning gay "propaganda", which was followed in late December by a pair of suicide bombing that killed 34 people in Volgograd, only 400 miles from Sochi. Terror threats by Islamic insurgents from the North Caucasus region of Russia have had the IOC on edge since Sochi was awarded the Games, so hearing security experts fear the worst has done little to ease concerns.
Security has been top of mind since the first venue was planned. Russia has already spent more than $51 billion to rebuild Sochi -- a coastal city of more than 350,000 that was once a jewel on the Black Sea but has fallen on hard times -- into a year-round tourist spot and winter sports resort. President Putin has justified the enormous Olympic expenditure by characterizing them as long-term investments in roads, railways, hotels and other infrastructure.
Although the Russian Olympic Committee and the IOC are not releasing the cost of securing the Sochi venues, most experts are saying the security budget will overshadow all previous Games, approaching more than $7 billion. The Russian governments will be deploying more than 50,000 military and special police and they have constructed a so called “Ring of Steel” that surrounds a 60-mile long and 25-mile wide perimeter complete with advanced video surveillance, intrusion detection technology and even drones.
For Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program and noted expert on the history, strategy, and organizational structure of various world jihadist groups, the Sochi Olympics is by far the most dangerous in the Games’ history.
“These are the Security Games. One of their big priorities is to keep the Games safe. Security has been driven to the fore,” says Garenstein-Ross “We know there are about 40,000 security personnel that Russia has moved to the area and probably more than that. Metal detector, bomb sniffing dogs -- they have taken every physical security precaution. In reality Putin has played down the cost of the Games so far. Now that Russian economy is staggering a little, they want to make it seem to the Russian people that they are getting all this world-wide prestige and infrastructure improvement at a very reasonable price tag.”
While the threat of terrorism in Sochi is more pronounced and blatant than in past Games, the Olympics have served as a high-profile target for terrorists for decades. At the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian terrorist group. The 1996 Atlanta Summer Games saw domestic terrorism when Eric Rudolph detonated a bomb at Centennial Olympic Park that killed two people and injured more than 100. The subsequent investigation turned into a media circus that falsely accused a local security guard working in the park before settling into a massive national manhunt for Rudolph that lasted years. He is currently serving life in prison.
As international security expert Ariel Cohen points out, the one advantage the Russians have is they are expecting an attack -- unlike previous Games.