SOCHI, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personally promised “ring of steel” to secure the 2014 Winter Olympics is taking shape.
Armed soldiers in hooded drab-green parkas stood guard Tuesday at the end of one runway at the Sochi Airport, where Olympic athletes, spectators and foreign dignitaries are beginning to arrive.
A camouflaged anti-aircraft station rests atop a hill nearby the cluster of ice events stadiums at the Winter Games’ Black Sea coastal venue.
Sochi is beginning to resemble a police state, and that’s just fine with the Olympic athletes, fans and locals.
“I feel pretty good about it, I mean they are trying as hard as they can,” said U.S. bobsled pusher Chris Fogt, an Army captain who worked in intelligence and security in Iraq after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. “Something happened in Atlanta in ’96, it can happen here. You just hope. I think that they are trying their hardest and they are doing everything they can.”
British short track speed skater Jon Eley said: “The security is good, not over the top, and we feel safe.”
The safety of the athletes could be tested, as two members of Austria’s Olympic committee reportedly received a letter containing threats to kidnap skier Marlies Schild and skeleton competitor Janine Flock at the Winter Games, which officially open Friday.
Terrorist threats, the proximity of Sochi to troubled spots like Chechnya, and the general angst of hosting a large-scale event in the post-9/11 age have unnerved some people to the point of staying away from the Games.
A poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of Americans believe that holding the Winter Olympics in Russia was a bad idea, while 32 percent thought it was a good decision.
Of those who disapprove of the Games being in Russia, 62 percent cited the potential for terrorism or general security issues as the reasons.
After hearing concerns about Sochi security from Washington and other world capitals, Putin vowed to encircle Sochi in a “ring of steel” to discourage or thwart any terrorist activity.
From the looks of things, he’s trying to deliver on his promise.
Even Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and fierce Putin critic, thinks it’s unlikely that Sochi will be victimized during the Winter Games.
“I think that the security measures which are in place will guarantee security in Sochi,” he told BBC News. “Of course, this region isn’t very stable, but in the end I’m sure that the Russian state is capable of ensuring security in the Olympic zone.”
The Olympic Park and Olympic Village railway stations — critical transportation hubs for moving people from the coastal region to the mountain events — look more like airports than rail terminals.
The number of police officers, soldiers and Russian Cossacks walking beats at the stations has grown in recent days. A security force of 40,000 — police officers, military and Federal Security Service agents — are expected to descend on this city of 400,000 for the Games.
Passengers must go through metal detectors, have their bags X-rayed, and have suspicious contents examined before gaining entry to the stations. If the metal detectors go off or something doesn’t look or feel right, stern-looking security officials donned in purplish patchwork quilt-style warm-up suits are at the ready to provide a thorough pat down.
U.S. speed skater Shani Davis said he likes the security agents’ style — wardrobe-wise, at least.
“Purple is my favorite color, and if anyone wants to give me a jacket then I’d be happy,” Davis told Olympic News Service.
There’s been an increase in recent days in the number of police officers and soldiers who stroll the aisles of passenger trains. Recordings in English and Russian over the train’s loudspeakers urge passengers to watch out for and report suspicious items.
Television cameras monitor the tracks along the high-speed rail line to mountainous Krasnaya Polyana. And security forces were stationed under the rail route’s bridges and the underpasses of the highway next to the tracks.
The local train from Olympic Park to Sochi runs along the Black Sea, offering stunning views and a glimpse Saturday at what appeared to be a military vessel strategically anchored just offshore.
Behind the scenes, Russian authorities are reportedly aggressively monitoring telephone and Internet activities in Sochi to such an extreme that the European Federation of Journalists issued tips for its members covering the Winter Games. It urged members to increase the protection of their gear against spyware and malware, and to turn off geo-tagging and GPS applications on phones and laptops if they’re conducting sensitive interviews.
Still, several U.S. security analysts say Russian officials have done well thus far in protecting the Olympic zone but stressed that their work has only just begun.
“I understand it’s going quite well,” said Fred Burton, an analyst for Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm and a former State Department counterterrorism agent who worked the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. “Once you get through the opening ceremonies. That’s where I’d be concerned. Day 3, Day 4, Day 5 is when you start re-evaluating, making sure you’ve got individual venues covered and your outlying areas covered.”
Residents in Sochi and nearby Adler have mixed views about the security blanket covering their area. Knarik Kochkonian, a souvenir shop owner in Adler, said she’s “absolutely unruffled” by the heightened security or potential for danger during the Games.
“Of course I’ve heard about the terror threats, but my intuition says everything will go well,” Kochkonian said through an interpreter. “The government has done its best to ensure security during this event. I think nothing bad will happen.”
But Olga Shapranova, an Adler grocery store worker, said she’s concerned.
“My son goes in for skiing at Krasnaya Polyana,” she said through an interpreter. “I will not allow my son to train (there) during the Olympics. Maybe I am overreacting, but one can never know what may happen.”
That said, Shapranova plans to be in the stands rooting for the host country during the Winter Games.
“We bought tickets for some competitions, and we hope everything will be OK and we will enjoy the Games,” she said.