If bombs went off in San Francisco, would that stop you from making a trip to Los Angeles? The Bay Area is roughly 400 miles — 640 or so kilometers — from LA.
Volgograd, where a suicide attack Sunday rocked the train station and another Monday destroyed a trolley bus, is roughly 400 miles northeast of Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Games, which begin in 36 days.
Experts have suggested the attacks might signal the onset of a wave of terror attacks directed by Russia’s most-wanted militant, Doku Umarov. Last July, he vowed to disrupt the Olympics. He called the Games “satanic.”
“Dear friends,” the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said in televised remarks amid visits to the Russian Far East and then Wednesday to Volgograd itself, where the death toll in the two attacks has reached 34, “we bow our heads to the victims of violent terrorist attacks.
“I am sure we will continue to fight against terrorists harshly and consistently until their complete destruction.”
What the Volgograd attacks have done already is add another layer of complexity to what may be —this is no hyperbole — the most complicated project in the history of the modern Olympic movement.
Thirty-four years ago, the Olympic Games were held in Moscow. The United States, and several other countries in the west, boycotted, under intense pressure from Jimmy Carter’s White House.
Now, of course, we are within weeks of the first-ever Winter Games in Sochi, in the country that was the main part of the Soviet Union, that is now Russia.
The International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, is new to the job, elected in September. That said, he has in his first few months on the job shown formidable energy and capacity, and he and Putin also appear to have a remarkable relationship; Putin tracked Bach down within minutes of Bach’s election at the IOC meeting in Buenos Aires, on a cellphone, to wish Bach good luck.
Putin has been involved from the outset in oversight of these 2014 Games. They will have cost a reported $51 billion, the most-ever, at least $10 million more than the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
These Games have always marked a vehicle to assert Russia’s standing in our world — and, perhaps even more important, within Russia and to Russians, as the nation finds its way in these first decades after communism.
The 2014 Games have been enveloped for months in political controversy.
How much of that, one wonders, is left over from the old Cold War days, when the Soviets were “them” and the west was “us”?
How much, as the controversy over the Russian law purporting to ban gay “propaganda” aimed at minors has underscored, is because some Russian cultural values may be more conservative than in some quarters in the west, and yet many activists in the west believe Russians must be just like our most progressive precincts?
How much from the simple fact the Russians use a different alphabet?
Russia can be different.
Different, however, doesn’t mean worse. Or, for that matter, better. It just means different.
And that is entire purpose of the Games, indeed of the Olympic movement.
We are all, each of us, different.
The point is to celebrate our humanity. You can’t do that at separate world championships. You can’t do it unless you all come together in one place, at one time.
The reality is that security at the Sochi 2014 Games is going to be highly visible and, probably, heavy-handed. The feeling of being there is probably going to be akin to being in an armed camp, and the Volgograd attacks will probably ratchet things up a degree or two more.
It’s going to be something like being in Salt Lake City at the 2002 Games, five months after the 9/11 attacks.
The difference for most visitors to Sochi is that the language and cultural barriers are bound to be ferocious. And there’s yet another layer to the security system for many in Sochi, a pass system to get in and get out of whatever it is they’re going to see. In all, the scene is likely to be tense, perhaps even intense.
Is it going to be safe? Life holds no guarantees. The probable reason the bombs are going off 400 miles away is because Volgograd is the sort of “soft” transport center a terrorist can target to sow fear when the harder target — Sochi — would be far, far more difficult to strike.
Have the perpetrators of the Volgograd attacks done their job? Now my mother, across the time zones, wants to know whether I’m still going to Sochi.
Of course. I wouldn’t miss it for a second. The 2014 Winter Olympics are going to be the place to be.
This is not bravado talking. I went to Iraq in 2003 and have no need to see more war zones. Beyond which, I have a wife and three children and for sure want to come home safe and sound.
Here, though, is the reality: Life must hold passion, and meaning. You have to play your part in things that are meaningful. The idea that people from around the world can come together and perhaps find not only a way to talk to each other but common ground, even if in our mixed-up world it takes some soldiers and rifles to do it — that’s worth finding a way to make happen. Then to be able to tell the story when something good happens — that’s great stuff.
As Bach said in his New Year’s message, the enduring appeal of the Games is that they provide a means for the athletes of the world to “experience first-hand the ability” to “build bridges and break down walls.”
He also said, “The Sochi Olympic Games should be a demonstration of unity in diversity and of remarkable athletic achievements — not a platform for politics or division. This is even more important after the cowardly terrorist attacks in Russia, which we utterly condemn. Terrorism must never triumph. We trust that the Russian authorities will deliver safe and secure Olympic Winter Games for all athletes and all participants.”
The Russians will get their next likely test of whether they can, indeed, deliver safe and secure Games on Jan. 20. On that date the Olympic flame relay goes to Volgograd. The swim school there has produced such notables as Alexander Popov (four gold, five silver medals), now an IOC member; and Evgeny Sadovyi, who won three gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games swimming for the Unified Team, including the 400 freestyle, in 3:45, a time that would have gotten him fourth at the 2013 world championships. The pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva (two gold, one bronze), was born in Volgograd.
Sadovyi is due to be one of those running Jan. 20 in his hometown.
Marius Vizer, the president of the International Judo Federation as well as Sport Accord, the umbrella organization for the international sports federations, wrote a year-end message as well. His words, too, are on-point:
“The Sochi Winter Games,” he wrote, “represent not only a magnificent financial effort from Russia and the exclusive attention of President Vladimir Putin but they are also an outstanding effort of respect and solidarity towards humanity, a noble gesture of appreciation from the Russian people towards all the countries of the world that will participate in this event. These Games are staged to welcome all those who have a special role in sports, politics, media and human values.
“I consider that athletes, politicians, media and all the entities that define the human values must be not only [in] solidarity with Russia’s efforts of respect, but on the occasion of this event, they should also support and celebrate together a total gesture of solidarity, unity and appreciation in order to become themselves an example for humankind.”