Fans of downhill skiing would be forgiven for thinking they had arrived at a military base when showing up in Sochi for the Winter Olympics.
Ticketholders must walk under an array of cameras hooked up to face-recognition software before traversing the checkpoints and the mesh fences to make their way beyond the armed guards. If picked out, they then have to step into a full-body scanner. All spectators must pass through metal detectors twice and present their documents three times.
“The guests are the lucky ones,” said Konstantin, who works for a logistics company that helped organize the opening ceremony and is prohibited from using his last name or that of his employer. “The staff isn’t. I spend hours getting through security checks every day.”
While heightened scrutiny is the norm at such events, the edges are sharper in the Russian Black Sea resort town following a spate of terrorist bombings that killed more than 30 people.
An Islamic militant group last week posted a video threatening to deliver a “present” for visitors to Sochi, which was sealed off on Jan. 7 as Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to “do everything” to make the games safe without “depressing participants.” The government deployed 40,000 police and special services officers.
“Of course these measures are a bit annoying,” said Dmitry Svishev, the head of Russia’s curling federation. “But then you think about what efforts are taken to guarantee the safety of all the spectators and you think about your personal safety — and you calm down.”
The lockdown starts with extra layers of checks at the airport, rebuilt for the games for $440 million. Security cameras pepper the terminal, some low enough to touch so they can get a better picture for the face-recognition software.
Mountains of deodorants, water bottles and beer cans clog containers as all liquids have been banned for travelers on the trains that ferry passengers to the sports venues. The rail link to the Olympic venues passes through police checkpoints at every station. All passengers are shepherded through metal detectors and searched manually by security personnel.
Spectators need to register ahead of time to gain access. Full-body scanners stand ready at the entrance to the Olympic Park complex, which encompasses six arenas and the medals plaza. Once inside, identity checks are required again for access to individual buildings.
A Pantsir artillery system, capable of engaging multiple targets as much as 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, is ensconced on the snowy slopes of the mountain area that will host the skiing, snowboard and bobsled competitions.
For the London Olympics in 2012, the U.K. armed forces deployed Eurofighter Typhoon jets and Royal Navy helicopters, while anti-aircrafts missiles were set up near the venues. A total of 17,000 British military personnel were involved in addition to staff provided by G4S Plc, the world’s largest security company.
Russia’s government kept a close eye on security issues at the Olympics “from the very beginning,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview with CNN yesterday.
In Sochi, a resort city of 345,000 people, the road to the remote biathlon center snakes through checkpoints manned by agents of the Federal Security Service, the successor of the communist-era KGB, while special forces units in white camouflage practice nearby.
Back downtown, Sergei Cherepov shows off the capabilities of the city council’s situation center, which monitors 1,400 civilian surveillance cameras across town. They are programmed to alert the 40 operators to the appearance of alien objects or large groups of people gathering.
“You can identify a pack of cigarettes from a rooftop with these,” said Cherepov, the center’s director.
The army of electronic eyes doesn’t have much to see for now; Sochi is quiet. Construction is mostly completed and the tourists haven’t arrived yet. Traffic, notoriously difficult, is a fraction of the usual. Only cars registered to the city or carrying special permits are allowed in.
The high-speed trains are mostly used by Olympic staff and the security forces staying in temporary housing as they shuttle back and forth to the freshly spruced-up downtown area.
As security personnel gear up for the flood of visitors, preparations are also under way to put on a show for them.
On a recent visit, Konstantin Ernst, the chief executive of state-run Channel One television, was directing rehearsals at the 40,000-seat Fisht Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony.
Dancers move in circles to the rhythm of Russian folk melodies and projected slogans swirl on the ground, ranging from the Communist “Pioneers Are Model Peers” to the frivolous “I Can Dance Boogie-Woogie Till the Morning.”
There’s no such levity at the airport, where a security worker looks at a picture of alleged terrorist Razmena Ibragimova under the warning “currently located in Sochi.”
Police have been seeking Ibragimova, 22, depicted in a hijab, since last year, when an operation that spanned most of Russia failed to locate her. The hunt is back on after twin bombings in the final days of last year killed more than 30 in Volgograd, about halfway between Sochi and Moscow.
The incidents heightened security across the nation as authorities executed a security lockdown in Sochi. The newly installed Siemens AG high-speed trains that connect the airport with the city center zip by between mesh fencing and are regularly patrolled by police.
The coastal cluster, where the ceremonies and most of the team sport events will take place, is located in the Imeretin Valley two miles from the border with Abkhazia, the Georgian separatist region recognized by Russia and four more countries after a five day Russian-Georgian war in 2008.
On the shore, a squad of Cossacks is on duty in restyled tsarist-era uniforms. On the horizon beyond the berths awaiting cruise ships to be used as tourist accommodation, warships inspect the waters. The sights, while unusual, are a comfort for Ivan Syskevich, 49, who works in a local resort.
“When we think about safety, mine and yours, the safety of the guests from all over the world, can’t we just be a bit tolerant for these weeks?” he said.