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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 1/22/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Russia must ensure safety at Olympics

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

There will be at least two U.S. Navy vessels, one of them a destroyer, poised in the Black Sea, along with transport aircraft standing by as part of a contingency plan to evacuate American citizens from the Russian resort city of Sochi.

The State Department has already issued a travel alert for the region, which is a little like our Level 1 snow emergency. The message is “proceed, but be very careful.”

Meanwhile, Russian security forces are trying to find a “black widow” terrorist, evaluating a videotaped message from the grave, warning of death and devastation to the Sochi area sometime after opening ceremonies on Feb. 7.

Someone remind me again, how did this once-faded seaside resort town get the 2014 Winter Olympics in the first place? And why should it proceed?

The answer to the first question is money, politics, and corruption. The answer to the second, well, I haven’t figured that out.

Political scientists tell us Sochi is located not far from a war zone. Militants in the North Caucasus district stretched between the Black and the Caspian seas — some of them influenced by politics and some by religion, almost all of them poor and angry — have been fighting for a separate state.

This is nothing new, but the Olympics have provided a fresh stage, and it has now come to the world’s attention with recent terrorist activity centered in Volgograd, some 400 miles to the northeast.

Russian president Vladimir Putin — and why in the world should we not trust him? — says 40,000 security officers will assure that all is well, that any and all dissent will be squelched. This is Russia, true. But no outcome can be guaranteed.

I’m sensitive to the dedication of 6,000 athletes who have trained for years for this moment. They will live in a presumably well-secured environment. Not their families and friends and fans. Is it worth the risk?

It is estimated that 15,000 U.S. citizens will visit Sochi, which, by the way, is tucked into the far southwest corner of Russia that is closer to Iran and Iraq and Syria than it is to Moscow.

No problems there.

But the immediate problem is more territorial. A jihadist Web site posted a rather eerie video the other day featuring two men believed to have been suicide bombers in the Volgograd train station attack in December. Their Olympic message was not one of warmth and welcome.

Then there are the so-called black widows. There apparently is a group of women whose militant husbands have been killed by government forces and who, in turn, have volunteered themselves for suicide bomb missions. Wanted posters are being circulated for at least one of them who has been seen in Sochi.

Maybe those 40,000 security forces might be able to locate her in the next couple weeks. Russian city districts are complicated, but the metropolitan area where they are searching would stretch from Toledo to Detroit.

Depending on whom you believe, Putin has between $25 billion and $50 billion invested in these Olympics. Some analysts who use the high figure insist half of it has disappeared to graft and corruption.

Hey, it’s Russia.

With so much on the line maybe he’ll get it right. We should pray he does because the alternative, as we learned years ago in Munich where gold, silver, and bronze came bathed in innocent blood, can be tragic.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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