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Sochi Winter Olympics' all-out effort to keep Games secure

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In a few days, Dan Richards will hit the ground in Sochi to begin final preparations for the Winter Olympics.

As head of a Boston-based crisis management and response company, Richards has been hired to help protect the U.S. ski and snowboard teams while they compete in Russia.

He hopes for an uneventful few weeks, but with recent news of terrorist bombings in the region and Islamist militants threatening further attacks, his job could prove difficult.

"I think there is a high degree of concern and nervousness," the chief executive of Global Rescue said. "I don't think that's inappropriate."


FOR THE RECORD:
Olympic security: An article in the Jan. 23 Sports section said that Dan Richards, hired to help protect the U.S. ski and snowboard teams in the Winter Olympics, would arrive in Sochi, Russia, in a few days. Richards does not plan to go to Russia.


The Russian government has been on alert since a string of recent suicide bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd, about 400 miles away. They have flooded Sochi with tens of thousands of police, troops and security personnel.

As of late Wednesday, authorities were still searching for several potential bombers said to be in the vicinity, including one woman who might be in the city itself.

Though experts on global terrorism have been impressed by the level of security instituted by the Russians, they stop short of guaranteeing a safe and secure Games.

"No one really knows," said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University. "This is probably one of the more dangerous environments for holding an Olympics."

Sochi is considered vulnerable because of its proximity to the bloody insurgency in the North Caucasus.

The national Olympic committees in several nations — including the U.S. — have received messages warning them not to bring athletes to Russia in February.

Though officials said Wednesday that the letters and emails lack credibility, there have been other ominous signs.

Last summer, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov encouraged attacks on what he characterized as a sporting event held on "the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea."

A group claiming responsibility for the Volgograd bombings issued similar threats in another video.

Olympic officials and organizers have insisted all along that they can keep athletes and spectators safe when the competition begins early next month. This a pet project for President Vladimir Putin, who has cut no corners in spending an estimated $50 billion on the Games and surrounding infrastructure.

In addition to mustering a large security force, the government has restricted travel in the area, allowing only cars with Sochi registrations or Olympic passes to drive on city streets.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, is touring the city this week and told CNN the venues are "quite fortified," calling Russian security efforts the "most impressive" in Olympic history.

Richards has heard similar reports from his employees already in Sochi.

"The measures that the Russians have taken are, by all accounts, extraordinary," he said. "The resources they have brought to bear are all that you would hope for."

The crisis management expert and others like him believe the possibility of a large-scale incident at an Olympic venue remains slight.

"To disrupt the Games and do something systemic takes a lot of resources and a level of competency we have yet to see in any of these [militants]," he said.

Terrorists are more likely to attack on the periphery, in nearby cities or in regional transport hubs where fans are passing through on their way to Sochi.

Nevertheless, the U.S. military announced this week that it will keep warships and aircraft at the ready should American athletes and officials require emergency evacuation.

The Americans have also offered to help with security. That assistance could include providing Russia with technology for countering improvised explosive devices, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the American Forces Press Service.

Though the Federal Security Service of Russia has conferred with British intelligence officials, Stent said that cooperation with the U.S. has proved tricky in the past.

The Georgetown professor suggests that concerns surrounding these Winter Games should make people wonder why the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi in the first place.

"Given the neighborhood," she said, "you could question whether this was a wise decision."

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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