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Covering the Sochi Olympics Under a Cloud of Global Doubt


BY ANGUS WEST / GlobalPost

As the world turns its attention to Sochi for the start of the Olympics on Friday, efforts to turn the subtropical resort city into an Olympic venue hit deadline. This is what it all looks like.

SOCHI, Russia — “What do you think of Russia?” Dmitry Avtonomov asked me.

He is a young Russian man visiting Sochi from Cheboksary, a city on Russia's Volga River, and he wanted a comparison with the US.

I searched for words. “Well, it’s less fancy.”

“You mean, normal?” he asked.

Sochi isn’t a glistening city. Rows of single-story houses, some with metal roofs, retreat from the sea; protruding yellow utility pipes connect many buildings, occasionally over roads; there are high-rise hotels closer to the coast, along with dilapidated older buildings. Smooth black stones cover the beach.

There was talk around the 2012 London Olympics about the unprecedented security, questions about whether or not the facilities would be ready in time, how the performance would play out, and if the country would really benefit. The same has happened here in Russia, but there is more security, more money and more negative attention in the press.

This is what initially drew me to Sochi and made me want to witness the coastal resort's changing landscape and, of course, these Olympic Games — to be present as a correspondent for GlobalPost covering the human rights issues, geopolitics and security machine that accompany the Games in this setting.

Russia’s $50 billion investment for the Winter Olympic Games is most visible in the city’s new infrastructure: a railroad the length of Sochi’s coast connecting to Sochi International Airport, and a new highway linking the coast to Krasnaya Polyana and surrounding ski resorts, where the downhill events for the Olympics will be held.

Russia’s massive security effort for the Games is also most evident in the city’s public spaces.

Walk anywhere in Sochi for long enough and you’ll run into security of some kind: Cossacks, police, soldiers. Eventually, you might accept that they are just doing their job and grow immune to their eyeing you. Still, busloads of Olympic volunteers rush to get on the trains at Adler’s new train station—which has lines running toward downtown Sochi and the Olympic park—while purple-suited squads administer full-body checks and x-ray scans before anyone can enter.

Railway_sochiThis happens twice at the new station, a giant curved structure on the Black Sea: first at the entrance, and again before boarding at the platforms. If that wasn’t enough, black and brown German shepherds walk with guards in the crowd. A small fluffy dog used for bomb sniffing seems innocent next to the powerful German breed.

There appears to be about one dog for every three security officials, and far more security officials than tourists. Some soldiers have blue and grey camouflage; their sheer numbers would prevent anyone from doing anything suspicious.

Soldiers and police are everywhere—along the tracks on broken cement blocks of Soviet-era bath houses, under roadways, standing in green and grey army suits.

Packs of Cossacks huddle together along the streets surrounding the Olympic park. They look but don't do much else. They stay in back alleys or walk the streets: they watch you.

If you seem suspicious, they will let you pass, keeping watch beneath fur hats. Like most security personnel on the streets of Sochi, they seem intent on doing their job, but also like they are there to be seen.

Getting into the “ring of steel” protecting the costal Olympic park without proper credentials seems impossible. Even for a pedestrian walking to the venue it is not easy. A new roadway and overpass cross each other near the main entrance, requiring those who approach on foot to jump two barriers and try not to get hit by oncoming traffic.

ShipsOut in the ocean, beyond the seaside Olympic park, two hulking navy ships pace at sea. At least one is prepared to evacuate US citizens, should the need arise. It makes you feel safe—if you’re American—but then again, people here don’t seem too worried about a terrorist attack during the Games.

Firdaus Pathi, a 27-year-old medical student, traveled with a friend to snowboard in the mountains near Sochi before the Olympics. Pathi is from Volgograd, where a series of suicide bombings left dozens killed and many more dead late last year. He lives near the Volgograd train station where the latest bombing occurred, and says his brother heard the bombs go off.

“It was terrifying,” he said.

The threat of an attack emanating from the volatile North Caucus region, which neighbors Sochi, heightened security precautions for the Olympics—made them what I see here today. But, like many traveling to Sochi in the coming weeks, Pathi decided to take the risk. Of course he was concerned, he told me, but the feeling came to pass.

“I believe if bad things are going to happen, they are going to happen,” he said. “It doesn't matter where you are.”


An ABC News report on Sochi preparations, AFTER THE JUMP...

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  1. Excellent report from a reporter for the Global Post, a top-notch newspaper.

    Mr. West, I would appreciate it if in your future reports you would cover harassment and detention of local and foreign media, and the extent to which it is or is not possible for tourists to mingle with the Sochi population. Also, it would be good to hear more about the role of the Cossacks in providing security. Why are they there? They have no special expertise or training in security at an event like this. Did Russia train them? And as extreme nationalists, how are they interacting with their foreign guests?

    As for the "ring of steel" it may be impregnable. But the Dagestanis and the Chechens don't need to penetrate it to ruin the Olympics. If they can get anywhere close, they can create a ring of terror around the ring of steel, creating a siege mentality within the venue. That would be a victory for them.

    Posted by: Sam | Feb 4, 2014 7:17:15 PM

  2. I know I will be crucified for this comment, but on one hand I hope the Olympic games are a success, especially for the athletes who have spent almost their entire lives preparing for this moment.

    Part of being in a global society is learning and experiencing other cultures, other beliefs, other ways of living, and other ways of viewing life. It does not, for a moment, mean I do not support the LGBT population of Russia and continue to strive to overturn the odious propaganda law. But one does not change hearts and minds by punishing the innocent residents of Sochi (even if they do support the harm being inflicted upon their fellow LGBT residents); one changes hearts by being exposed to new people, new ideas, and new realities (and this includes residents seeing and hearing LGBT people who are as ordinary as they are in every facet of their lives.

    My fervent hope is that we continue to fight for our global rights through dialogue, living by example, and fostering human interaction (as well as the occasional kick to the pocketbook of the bigots).

    That may be polly-annish to many, but that's how it worked my conservative neighborhood when my husband and I moved in here in California. Everyone had voted for PropH8 when it came out, but after getting to know us, every one of them has said they regret their vote and would gladly take it back if they could. To me, that's how victories are won. . .not by stooping to the lowest denominator of the opposing side (and yes, there are lots of lowest denominators on the other side).

    Posted by: Keith | Feb 4, 2014 7:29:19 PM

  3. What they need is some gays to spruce-up the place, and maybe a few Home Depot Lesbians to finish the construction work. Too bad they don't have any of those according to the mayor. Because Putin says so.

    Posted by: Hansel Currywurst | Feb 4, 2014 7:36:42 PM

  4. This is insane, what a big f'nnn mess.

    On top of the numerous reasons SOCHI should never have been awarded the Olympics, 50 Billion spent for this? It's a dump.

    Dbl toilets aside, the idea of 40,000 security forces and warships to "protect" the visitors and athletes. What a waste of resources. The IOC might have just as well given it to Afghanistan.

    Does anyone really want to put themselves through this? I also heard ticket sales are not selling and it is easy to see why. Who would want to go to this hell hole?

    The rampant corruption and shop shod construction to get these glamorous hotels? Don't even start me on gathering up and killing all the local dogs?

    This does not look good for Mr Putin.

    Posted by: Will G. | Feb 4, 2014 8:00:46 PM

  5. Mitt Romney wouldn't let Rafalca dance at Sochi.

    But he would have given Vladimir a thumbs up!

    Posted by: bkmn | Feb 4, 2014 8:35:50 PM

  6. #SoChiti2014

    Posted by: Urbane | Feb 4, 2014 11:00:30 PM

  7. @KEITH: I totally agree with your observations and insights. Well said!

    Posted by: andrew | Feb 4, 2014 11:04:04 PM

  8. Andy, why on earth are you donating so blog space to this tripe? Stop. For Godsakes, Sochi is no where near this kind of attention.

    Posted by: Mike Ryan | Feb 5, 2014 12:29:49 AM

  9. @Keith - you're an idiot. Please, go away.

    Posted by: Mike Ryan | Feb 5, 2014 12:31:23 AM

  10. @Keith. I agree with you too. Disregard the inevitable negative comments your post will undoubtedly get from the boycott-istas.

    Posted by: Joe in Ct | Feb 5, 2014 1:02:10 AM

  11. OMG....the dogs are still alive or struggling from gun wounds and / or poison! What ill timing, VP.

    Posted by: LG | Feb 5, 2014 3:33:06 AM

  12. Keith, while I admire your optimism and believe it was very well served during the Prop 8 days, I cannot get excited about the Olympics this year. This is Putin's Olympics and only exists to pump up his machismo image. The corruption and hypocrisy of the IOC, the overt commercialism, athletes who are actually professional, among other things just do not make it appealing to me anymore.

    If others choose to partake and enjoy this, than that is great for them.

    Posted by: John Roberts | Feb 5, 2014 7:05:17 AM

  13. It really doesn't matter what does or does not happen at this Olympics.

    Mr. Putin will declare it a major success.

    The only difference between Putin/Russia and any tin-pot dictator/banana republic is size.

    Posted by: cminca | Feb 5, 2014 9:01:40 AM

  14. I don't think Putin is going to get the public relations coup he was hoping for. So far most of the coverage I've seen is about how Ill prepared Sochi is for the games.

    Poor Putin. He's like Carrie at the prom. They're all going to laugh at you!

    Posted by: Caliban | Feb 5, 2014 10:55:37 AM

  15. @Cminca and Caliban: spot on.

    From what I've seen of the architecture and what they've done to the surrounding area, it's just horrible and tacky. Or horrible because it's tacky. No culture present here.I thank my lucky stars that I wasn't born in Russia.

    Of course, this is just a really shallow comment.

    Posted by: tinkerbelle | Feb 5, 2014 2:10:01 PM

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