Sochi and security

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.”


Boston Marathon bombings: 'For what? For what?'

The particular cruelty of the attack near the finish line of the Boston Marathon is not just that bombs killed and injured real people with real lives and real families who loved them. Who love them still. That is only the starting place.

The pictures from the scene, the descriptions of witnesses -- runners nearing the finish line, the roar of the two explosions, runners suddenly legless, the street awash in blood and gore -- are so horrifying in their brutality that they must shock any and all of us who adhere to the markers of a civil, decent world.

This picture from the Twitter feed of PR professional Bruce Mendelsohn shows some of the finish-line carnage

It is said that sport can show the path to a better world. It offers windows to a world in which we can talk to each other in ways we might not otherwise find. Through the tests of body, mind and soul, sport can illuminate such things as friendship, excellence and respect -- the so-called Olympic values.

There is in all of sport perhaps no greater individual test than the marathon. It's just you and yourself out there. No matter how many thousands of people are in the race with you, it's really just you and however much will you can summon to keep going.

This would seem what the blasts were really aimed at Monday.

They were timed to do maximum damage not just in the real world we live in.

They were aimed at an idea -- more, at an ideal.

The blasts were of course a statement. Why else did they go off near the finish line of the marathon that is, of all the road races in the world, the most venerated?

Three people were killed and more than 100 injured in the two blasts, authorities were reporting late Monday evening. The explosions went off, seconds apart, about four hours after the start of the men's race.

Roupen Bastajian, a state trooper from Rhode Island, was receiving his finisher's medal after completing the race in 4 hours, 2.42 seconds. He crossed at 2:43 p.m., about seven minutes before the first explosion, as he told the New York Times. He thought at first it might be a symbolic cannon. Then he heard the second blast and started running toward the white smoke. He saw at least 40 people on the ground:

“These runners just finished and they don’t have legs now. So many of them. There are so many people without legs. It’s all blood. There’s blood everywhere. You got bones, fragments. It’s disgusting. It’s like a war zone.”

President Obama, in a statement from the White House, said, "We will get to the bottom of this. We will find out who did this, and we will find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice."

The president did not refer to the attacks as an act of terrorism. He cautioned everyone from "jumping to conclusions."

You can be sure, however, that federal, state and law enforcement authorities are going to treat this as terrorism. You've got multiple explosive devices. On a stage designed to attract national and international attention. That equals an act of terror.

The pressing question, of course, is -- what is the motive behind Monday's attack?

Monday was tax day in the United States. Is that it?


It was the Patriots' Day holiday Monday in Massachusetts, which commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War, the battles of Lexington and Concord, on April 19, 1775. Massachusetts switched its observation of the day itself to the third Monday in April in 1969, and Patriots' Day there in recent years is as much known for the marathon as for the holiday.

The holiday, however, carries significance for anti-government activists and this third week in April carries a number of anniversaries with potential significance: the assault in Waco, Texas, that ended a 51-day standoff and left 80 members of a religious group called the Branch Davidians dead (April 19, 1993); the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which officials have said was carried out in part as a response to the Waco event (April 19, 1995); and, as well, school shootings in Columbine, Colo. (April 20, 1999) and at Virginia Tech (April 16, 2007).

The shootings at Virginia Tech and the Waco assault took place on a Monday -- Patriots' Day itself those particular years.

Is there a connection to any or all of those events?

As everyone knows, security at all sports events has ramped up considerably since the Munich 1972 Games and again since 9/11.

International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams, quoted by Associated Press, said "first thoughts" were with the victims of Monday's attack and their families. Rio 2016 organizers expressed their "deep thoughts and condolences" and Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, condemned what she called an "insane act of violence."

Brazil, host to not just the 2016 Summer Games but the 2014 World Cup, has never confronted a significant threat of terror attacks.

The inescapable truth is that a marathon is 100 percent impossible to make safe. The corollary: that makes a marathon, especially one of the majors, a hugely attractive target.

The 2004 Athens Games marathon was disrupted when Neil Horan, a defrocked Irish priest who that day was wearing a red kilt, knocked race leader Vanderlei de Lima off course with just five kilometers to go. Stunned, de Lima picked himself up and continued to race, eventually finishing third. Horan, who had a history of mental illness, was given a 12-month suspended jail term, a 3,000-euro fine and banned from all future sports events.

What happened Monday in Boston is, needless to say, several orders of magnitude beyond that.

At the same time, it reinforces the point -- a marathon can not be made "safe."

The London Marathon is due to take place Sunday. Officials there, according to a statement released by the London Marathon Twitter account, are already reviewing security arrangements.

Whoever set off those bombs Monday in Boston sought to effect maximum damage. Literally, figuratively and -- perhaps most important -- to our collective imagination.

Lauren Fleshman, one of America's top female runners, was in Boston, cheering on friends. She  wrote on her blog that the "area by the finish was so packed that you couldn't even move."

She also wrote, "The Boston Marathon has so many stories from thousands of people that won't be told, because a few people are cruel and crazy and impossible to understand, and that makes me even sadder than I already am."

Paul Thompson, a 29-time finisher of the race, a sports cardiologist who has made a career out of studying the health implications of running the Boston Marathon, talked with the Wall Street Journal as he was driving away from the bloody scene near the finish line. He was crying.

"For what? For what?" he said. "These people are totally innocent. They're not engaged in combat."