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Sochi, 'Ring of Steel' set for big stage

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, 11:15 p.m.
 

SOCHI, Russia — High in the air, an unmarked white zeppelin.

On the Black Sea, armed vessels.

Up on the hill just beyond the new Sochi-Adler airport, an anti-aircraft station.

Perched on nearly every fixture imaginable, a camera, one of 10,000 total.

Standing precariously on the median strip of a bustling highway, a lone police officer and his machine gun.

In cyberspace, who knows?

This is Vladimir Putin's self-dubbed “Ring of Steel” built to protect the Sochi Olympics from terror, and, Friday, it will face its first formidable test with the Opening Ceremony.

More than 40,000 will watch inside Fisht Stadium and hundreds of millions more on TV. The world will do so with a more wary eye than usual, given the entire North Caucasus region's instability and several threats issued.

The Russians continue to be adamant that all will be well.

“I'm sure the security threat in Sochi is no worse than New York, Washington or Boston,” Dmitry Kozak, Russia's deputy prime minister, said on Thursday.

It's impossible to precisely quantify the security presence in Sochi, but the total number of soldiers, police and federal security agents is projected to exceed 40,000, or about one-tenth the size of Sochi's permanent population. They're visible but not as much as security was in London, perhaps to keep their patterns unpredictable. One bus station, for example, will be unmanned; another has four soldiers. Later in the day, it changes. Some bridges, underpasses and tunnels appear to follow similar rotations.

On the Internet, word is rampant that laptops and iPhones are being hacked within seconds of powering up and using a Russian wireless carrier. The government will acknowledge only that monitoring the Web is essential to security.

Another departure from past Olympics: Workers and observers occasionally are stopped and asked to show credentials, papers or tickets, even if they are in non-Games territory such as public spaces or mass-transit stations. Even riders are urged over loudspeakers in Russian and English to report unusual activity. If anyone looks or acts suspicious, security officials dressed in striking purple uniforms descend quickly for a patdown.

The Purple Police, as some call them, have become a hot topic, possibly even a fashion hit.

“Purple is my favorite color,” American speedskater Shani Davis joked with reporters. “If anyone wants to give me a jacket, then I'd be happy.”

The broader purpose of the “Ring” is to capitalize on what should be ideal terrain for security: Black Sea on one side, Caucasus Mountains on the other, and a strip of land in between so narrow that navigable routes are sparse. Even so, vehicular traffic is strictly restricted, and newer roads have tall, clear plexiglass built around them.

To date, the Russian security has been almost universally praised, including by President Obama and by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who headed the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.

Scott Blackmun, the U.S. Olympic Committee's CEO, weighed in Thursday: “The safety of our athletes is always first and foremost in our minds, and we're confident in what we've seen.”

But any apparatus, no matter its cost or catchy nickname, can be deemed a failure with just one tragic event.

Dejan Kovacevic is a Trib Total Media sports columnist. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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