The countdown to Sochi was supposed be joyous, a celebration of all things Russian and the Olympics, too.
Instead it’s been nothing but a grim reminder that Olympic officials had no idea what they were getting when they bought into Vladimir Putin’s visions of surf and snow and handed him a Winter Olympics to call his own.
Every day seems to bring a new threat or another warning. Every day strains the nerves more, to the point where some athletes are telling family and friends it’s not worth the risk to go, even for the most important moment of their lives.
Suicide bombings a few hundred miles away. Threats of more to come in Sochi itself. A hardened militant group nearby with an immense hatred of Putin and Russia and little regard for human life.
And a general uneasiness that no matter how many billions they’ve spent, the Russians really aren’t ready for this at all.
If the latest news that three so-called “black widows” intent on carrying out suicide bombings are believed to already be in Sochi isn’t enough to put a damper on the fun and games, consider this:
The same Islamic militants who assassinated the Russian-backed leader of Chechnya — the father of the current president — in 2004 have not only have declared their intention to attack the games but demonstrated with his death that they have the creativity and means to do just that.
“There is precedence to this,” warned Lt. Col. Robert Schaefer, a Green Beret who literally wrote the book about the brutal conflict in the North Caucasus region. “It’s important to think about how (Chechen president Ramzan) Kadyrov’s father was killed at a stadium rally. During construction at the stadium they buried two 155 mm artillery shells in the concrete below the VIP bleachers. Then they waited until the elder Kadyrov attended and they detonated it.”
Think about that as you watch the opening ceremonies unfold in all their grandeur on television. Or when Shaun White attempts some flips, and the worst thing that seems possible is that he wipes out at the top of the half pipe.
Yes, Olympics have been a target of terrorists ever since the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes and team members in Munich. A lone wolf bombing in Atlanta killed one person in 1996, and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were clouded by fears of the 9/11 attacks that had taken place just months earlier.
But never have the threats seemed so real as they do in Putin’s playground by the Black Sea, just on the other side of the mountains from an area steeped in blood and years of conflict that include two recent wars between Russia and Chechnya unmatched for the brutality on both sides.
Already, militants have claimed responsibility for two bombings that killed 34 people in a train station and on a bus in Volgograd, about 400 miles from Sochi. One of their top leaders has called for his followers to “do their utmost to derail” the games, describing them as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”
These aren’t people used to making idle boasts. They’ve been fighting Russians for generations and are blamed for some of the most savage terrorism attacks in recent years, including a Moscow theater takeover in 2002 that ended in 170 deaths and a school siege two years later in North Caucasus where more than 300 died, many of them children, when Russian troops stormed the building.
And they roam not far from venues where the world’s best ice and snow athletes will perform in front of television cameras beaming it all to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
“It doesn’t take an expert to look at that region and say the Olympics will be such a large target that insurgents will not try to do something,” said Schaefer, who will be in Sochi as a security analyst for NBC. “There has been an average of 10 to 15 attacks in North Caucasus every month in recent years. It’s just now the press is paying more attention to it.”
That’s more than can be said about the IOC delegates who decide where every Olympics will go. They were won over in 2007 by a personal appearance by Putin, voting for his Olympics over Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria, after being assured that the coastal area of Sochi and the snow-capped mountains behind it would provide a spectacular backdrop for the games.
Apparently, the delegates never read the history books about a region long in turmoil. Or maybe they just were too busy having cocktails and getting picture taken with Putin they forgot to look at a map that shows Dagestan, now the most volatile part of the area, just 300 miles east of Sochi.
What was supposed to be a trouble-free Olympics built at a cost of $12 billion is now a bloated games costing more than $50 billion — with one IOC official saying a third went to bribes, kickbacks and other corruption. Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents were displaced from their homes for Olympic construction, and an AP reporter just this month visited residents without running water and using outhouses less than 2 miles away from the main Olympic cluster.
Add into that the uproar over Russia’s new anti-gay law, Putin’s recent clumsy effort that seemed to equate gays with pedophiles, and the fact a third of the tickets have gone unsold as foreigners for the most part are staying away.
But it’s the danger of terrorism that is most worrisome, despite an exclusion zone spreading out miles around Sochi and the tens of thousands of police, troops and other security personnel that will be on patrol in Sochi and the surrounding area.
Schaefer said one of his biggest concerns is that construction workers — many of them foreigners — could have taken bribes to look the other way while explosives were buried or caches of weapons stored in the frenzied buildup of facilities over the last few years. Another is that the railway bringing in almost all the spectators is a prime target stretching hundreds of miles that is incredibly hard to completely defend.
“The Russians are definitely pulling out all the stops,” said Schaefer, author of the 2011 book “The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad.” “I have people in the country now saying they have roadblocks completely around Sochi four hours out and people are not getting in unless they demonstrate they have good reason. But we’re talking about a committed group of people, and even the best security in the world may not be able to stop everything. We had great security at the Boston Marathon as well.”
Ultimately, Schaefer said, the best chance these games may have to be safe will be because of the same man who brought them to the doorstop of his vacation home in the area. Putin, he said, came to power because he was a strong figure at the time of the second Chechen war, and he wants to show in his second tenure as president that he has put down the rebellion.
“What could sell the world more than anything else is he’s the guy who finally did what all Russian Czars couldn’t — he tamed the Caucasus,” he said. “You have a large Olympics and you pull it off without incident, then you demonstrate to everybody that I’ve beaten them.”
The best hope for an Olympics that never should have been in Sochi to begin with is that this is one more time Putin gets what he wants.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com.