By Aarushi Gupta
The Olympic Games symbolize nations of the world putting aside political and economic differences and coming together in the spirit of athletics and sportsmanship. However, four weeks before the course of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a string of terrorist attacks, close to the resort town where the Olympics will be held, threatens the existence of a global tradition that brings glory to the best athletes in the world. A series of attacks beginning in October have taken place in Volgograd, a city 600 miles away from Sochi; while the distance seems far enough to be trivial, the concern lies with the potential for future attack on this event, as well as the fact that transportation is a huge factor with respect to the Olympics. Athletes and spectators will be attending from all over Russia and the world, and if any path into Sochi is put in harm’s way, there could be catastrophic consequences. But bombings have proved to be just the beginning, as a slew of Internet attacks and hijacked planes threaten the security of these games.
There have been several terrorist attacks near Sochi in the weeks preceding the Winter Games; arguably the most concerning fact is that these attacks have been carried out by several terrorist organizations, ranging from Chechen separatist groups to Islamic militants in several cities located relatively close to the Olympic Village in Sochi. The most prominent is the double attack at the Volgograd railway station on December 29 and 30, 2013, which together killed 34 civilians. Now, more than a month later, an Islamist group has taken responsibility for the attacks claiming, “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” The two men who organized the attack, Suleiman and Abdul Rahman, were from the Dagestan province in Russia, which is also where the terrorists who planted the bomb at the Boston Marathon were from. Various other suicide bombers, including many women, responsible for several incidents in Russia, have claimed ties to Dagestan, which indicates a serious potential threat to the Olympics. Chechen separatist groups have threatened to disrupt the games with ‘maximum force’, simply to use the games as an international platform for their anti-Moscow sentiments and garner international support for their separationist movement. There is no guarantee of safety at these Olympics, and with serious threats being made towards the Olympic institution, international travel agencies have been issuing serious advisories. The U.S. government has promised its full intelligence support to pursue and capture the offenders, going so far as to send Janet Napolitano, former head of Homeland Security and current chancellor of the UC Regents, with the Olympic Delegation to ensure its safety.
The various attacks have not gone unnoticed by the international community or by Russia’s own president, Vladimir Putin. In trying to reassure the public, Putin took a small ski trip to Sochi and was photographed on the slopes. Seeming to ooze confidence in the security of Sochi, Putin looked cavalier on the slopes. Since then, Sochi has been put under high security, with a “special exclusion zone […] where only Sochi-marked vehicles, emergency, or specially accredited intelligence service cars will be allowed into the wider Sochi area.” However, it is important for officials at Sochi to realize that since Sochi does not have a commercial air hangar, most visitors and athletes will be flying into Russia via Moscow or through St. Petersburg. Travel centers and train stations will be key for those trying to get to the Games, and the terrorist attack at the Volgograd train station has already proven that these will most definitely be targets. Georgetown scholar Christopher Swift has said that, “anybody traveling by ground to the Olympics likely will have to go through Volgograd.” The U.S. government has sent out an advisory to all U.S. citizens hinting that travelers should get “private medical evacuation and repatriation insurance,” despite all reassurances from Russian officials that the terrorist situation is being handled. It is true that the presence of Cossacks (the Russian police) has been increased to 400 personnel, evoking memories of the Tsarist era in Russia with their large fur hats and coats, but they are only stationed around the immediate Olympic vicinity. What experts call “soft targets,” locations such as restaurants, hotels, and other civilian-occupied, unfortified destinations are outside of the protection of the Russian government, and the security of these sites is significantly less than that of the Olympic venue.
Bomb threats on the ground by several groups were not alone; during the opening of the Olympics, a flight to Istanbul was hijacked by a drunken Ukrainian passenger who tried to commandeer the plane to Sochi. While this turned out to be a harmless attempt to secure the aircraft, it showed the real potential of something much worse. The man who was detained on the aircraft, an F-16 fighter, reportedly had “requests concerning his own country [Ukraine]” and wanted to relay “a message concerning sporting activities in Sochi.” The Ukrainian Security Service says that the man was acting alone, but it will be upsetting if the man’s sentiments are shared amongst other individuals who feel the same about the former Soviet Union hosting these games.
Of course, external threats are not the only concerns for these controversial games. Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation has also presented a threat to many visitors as well as competitors. Some, like Jose Coira of Houston, have chosen to forgo the Olympics, despite losing their down payment on several reservations, including airfare, hotels and tickets to the events themselves. He and his partner simply did not feel safe going to Russia amid the controversy over homosexual rights, as well as the violence occurring there. The global community has not been discrete in its protestation of the homophobic legislation passed in Russia; from Germany’s rainbow colored Olympic uniforms to Team Canada’s direct and amusing jibe that has gone viral, it seems that the international community is reminding Putin that diversity and inclusion is a major factor of these games.
But threats to these Olympics refuse to stop at physical terror; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on the eve of the games that hackers are targeting “any company that finances or supports the Olympic Games.” These cyber attacks are being launched mainly by a group named Anonymous Caucasus, who claim that “the Sochi games infrastructure was built on the graves of 1 million innocent Caucasians who were murdered by the Russians in 1864.” They are believed to be responsible for the malfunctioning website for the Russian National Olympic Committee, which was down earlier this month, along with training sites for Olympic volunteers, the Sochi Airport website and several sponsoring sites. Homeland Security will be monitoring communications and transactions in Sochi, and attendees are warned to be wary of phishing and malware scams from unidentifiable persons at the games.
Contrary to the terrorist attacks, physical and viral, which suggests that athletes would be worried to compete in Sochi, statements from the President of the IOC in Russia suggest that athletes are very excited to stay and compete in Russia. The Chief of IOC for the Sochi Olympics, Thomas Bach, sidestepped questions about security and safety, laughing them off and reminding press that threats have been an inherent part of the Olympics. Bach also said that 40,000 security forces protect city of Sochi, and that “these games will be the safest in history.” This is the same man who said earlier this week that the “the Olympic stage is ready for the best winter athletes of the world.” After his statement, a hilarious spew of Sochi hotel malfunctions emerged on Twitter from journalists covering the event. Thomas Bach might be optimistic about the security and the hotel accommodations (which are reportedly still giving athletes trouble), but at this point when threats are still emerging, it is fitting to be cautious at best.
Image by United Nations Photo