Sochi Olympics terror threat: How does it feel on the ground?

Sochi Olympics terror threats have 'varying degrees' of credibility, but calm in the city and a strong security presence appear to be soothing anxious athletes and media for now.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
A police officer stands guard at a train station in the Adler district of Sochi last month. The security presence at train stations is strong.

As the drumbeat of confirmed threats and congressional testimony about the security of the Sochi Olympic Games grows stateside, anxious visitors to this Black Sea town appear to be taking one large exhale.

No one, of course, is prepared to declare Russia's security measures a success. The Olympics have not even started, and the threats to the Sochi Games are more real and imminent that at any other in Olympic history.

But by all appearances, Russians here are calm and the security presence robust. So as athletes, staff, and media all arrive in Sochi to get down to the business of actually running a Winter Olympics, attention is slowly turning to the competition ahead and away from lingering fears.

"The feeling was that terrorism could happen here," says Ute Maag of the German Sports Journalists Association, summing up the atmosphere back in Germany. "But since I'm here, I'm relaxed."

Terrorist threats to the Games continue to grab attention in the United States, with the director of the National Counterterrorism Center telling Congress Tuesday that there were threats of “varying degrees” of credibility. The greatest concerns center on the terrorist outfit called the Caucasus Emirate, as well as the vulnerability of areas outside the venues for the Games themselves, he said.

In many respects, Sochi is facing unprecedented security challenges.

The Salt Lake City Games, held five months after 9/11, involved a security force of 13,000 troops. Though post-9/11 fears fueled security, no credible threat to the Games was ever reported.

"There wasn't a threat against Salt Lake City," says Ed Hula of "Around the Rings," a website that covers the International Olympic Committee (IOC). "There was paranoia. There was fear. But no one said we are going to come after the Salt Lake Olympics."

Sochi, meanwhile, sits in the shadow of the Caucasus, the heartland of the Russian insurgency, where Russian forces routinely carry out antiterrorism operations. To make the Sochi Games secure, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called in 40,000 troops, and their presence is, in places, overwhelming.

The Olympic Village train station could double as a barracks. To board a train involves a gauntlet of X-ray machines, ID checks, and pat-downs that would make the TSA blush. Whatever the reality, the impression is that the threat is not new to Russian authorities, and they are old (and firm) hands at the antiterror game.

Once through the security line, at least eight armed policemen stand on the train platform. Ring of steel, indeed.

In traveling to the mountain venues last week, Mr. Hula noted that the track is bordered by fences the entire way, with cameras and security personnel also monitoring the route.

"There's more security in the public-transit sector," in particular, than normal for an Olympics, says Hula.

The show of force, as well as Russian citizens' apparent lack of worry, has calmed many here. "We've felt very secure, very safe," American skeleton slider Noelle Pikus-Pace said at a press conference in Sochi Monday. "The security is high, and that makes me feel a lot safer, too."

Many here echo the sentiments of Ms. Maag, who says that now she is here, she is inclined to give the Russians the benefit of the doubt. "Perhaps there's a bit of skepticism, but we should give them a chance," she says. "I think everything is under control."

Besides, since 9/11, the week before the Olympics has traditionally been "security week." Arriving journalists, still waiting for the Games to start, are looking for stories to write. Two years ago, the week leading up to the opening of the London Summer Olympics was dominated by questions about adequate security, threat assessments, and stories about arrests. Once the Games started, security was all but forgotten as a media narrative.

That might not happen here, given the existence of credible threats, something that's unique to the Sochi Games, Hula says. "The people making threats against the [Sochi] Olympics have definitely carried out attacks in Russia."

But what goes on behind the scenes is arguably more important than visible shows of force. "Ultimately it's the intelligence work that goes into protecting the venues and games, or the sporting event that has the most impact," Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, told the Associated Press.

Indeed, Hula says the IOC is trying to get Sochi organizers to loosen some security protocols for accredited personnel, such as forcing them to turn on their laptops at checkpoints. For the moment, however, the visible show of force appears welcome to Sochi's jittery guests.

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