The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi begin in two months. With an estimated cost of $51 billion, and with President Vladimir Putin pledging to make the games a “safe, enjoyable and memorable experience,” organizers have rolled out some of the most extensive security measures ever seen at an international sporting event.
The country has spent roughly $7 million on improving security at the Sochi airport alone, where Russian authorities will make their passenger database available to Interpol, an intergovernmental group that facilitates global police cooperation. Yet Interpol’s involvement could be the tip of the iceberg, says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online Russian journal that focuses on security issues.
“Following the Boston bombing, the Americans and the British said they were willing to cooperate with Russia on security issues during the Olympics by exchanging information,” Soldatov says. “But exactly what kind of information they will be exchanging remains a secret.”
Here’s what’s known: Russian officials are already performing background checks on all visitors coming to Sochi. Before buying a ticket, everyone is asked to provide their passport details, which are then verified by the FSB—the government agency in charge of overseeing security during the games. The background checks are necessary to obtain a “spectator pass,” which authorities say must be worn at all times during the event.
Once visitors arrive, they will also have to go through a multi-layered security system that includes metal detectors and X-ray machines. A Russian journalist who recently traveled to Sochi says he was asked to turn on all of his electronic devices and even allow security officials to inspect his pack of cigarettes.
Russia isn’t new to holding high-profile global events: It hosted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and is preparing to host the 2018 World Cup final. But compared with previous iterations of the games, analysts say the security efforts in Sochi are more far-reaching because of terrorist threats from militants in northern Caucasia.
To quell safety concerns and to present an image of strength and stability in Russia, Putin is expected to place 40,000 police officers on duty during the games and deploy roughly 30,000 members of the armed forces to the Sochi area. On top of that, 10,000 more troops will be guarding the mountainous belt from Sochi to the Mineralnye Vody region nearby. The number of troops is more than double the amount of soldiers deployed during the 2012 London Olympics.
The Russians will also deploy a range of surveillance technology, including drones, reconnaissance robots, sonar systems and high-speed patrol boats. A computer system called Sorm will monitor all forms of communication, from telephone conversations to online activity, such as email, social media and instant messaging. The system is able to intercept any information the authorities consider sensitive.
Soldatov believes this extensive security isn’t really to track terrorists, but to monitor potential protesters. From more than a year now, critics have flocked to criticize the games as part of a broader protest against Putin. Most notably, they have lambasted the Russian government’s decision to pass a law criminalizing “gay propaganda,” which means anyone in the country can be arrested or fined for promoting homosexuality to anyone under the age of 18. Many activists have denounced the games, and last week German President Joachim Gauck became the first major politician to announce his decision to boycott Sochi, citing the Russian government’s human rights records and its crackdown on the political opposition.
For their part, Russian authorities have denied that they plan to stifle dissent during the games and even have promised to set up “protest zones.” Details remain scant on where these areas would be located and how they would be handled. And while it’s safe to assume that Putin won’t allow anyone or anything to tarnish his vision of the event or sabotage its PR success in Sochi, it’s not clear whether the rest of the country will be safe and secure as the games occur.