Gold-standard security apparatus takes centre stage at Olympic venues
The event may be safe, but getting about is something of an achievement
There’s no doubt that while the vast security has made these games safe – moreover, it’s made them feel safe – it has kept plenty of people away. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
I knew I was in trouble when the youngster in charge of the bus stop started rummaging in his coat pocket while I was still 20 yards away.
It’s like hearing the sound of sniper fire away off in the distance and knowing you’re already dead before the bullet hits. Rummaging meant tape and tape meant bus go bye-bye and bus go bye-bye meant journalist sit and wait-wait.
Just to be clear – this is not a moan. The hotel is good, food is grand, sport is great and the transport is exceptional. After a week in Sochi, I have no bone to pick. Instead, think of this as an explanation of what it’s like to live in a city that’s on total lockdown.
We’ll start with the tape. The bus stop was probably the highest one at the games, right up at the Alpine Centre on Rosa Khutor. It was about 90 minutes after the end of the men’s downhill on Sunday and the crowds had mostly cleared out. I needed to get a bus down the 23 switchbacks to the main mountain train station at Krasnaya Polyana, and from there travel the 60km down to the Olympic Park at sea level.
But once the youngster went for his tape, I knew I’d be waiting. Every official Sochi 2014 bus is plastered in blue tape with stern and officious looking writing on it. Tape on the front door, on the back door, the boot, petrol cap, driver’s window and roof windows. Once the tape goes on, the bus takes off for its destination. And there is no arguing with the tape.
He was a jolly young lad, about 21 years old. Most of the bus-stop sentries are. As a general rule, the younger the volunteer the more languages they have. “Hey sorry, man,” he said, looking up at a bus that was still sitting there with only three passengers on it. “I can’t change it. Another bus, 15 minutes.”
In 15 minutes exactly, we were on the road down the mountain. When we got to Krasnaya Polyana, we joined the queue of buses dropping off at the train station. Each one was thoroughly checked before we were allowed to get off. Tape on the front door, on the back door, boot, petrol cap, driver’s window and roof windows. Soldiers walked around the bus with mirrors to check the undercarriage, the tyres and roof. Only when passed by two guards were the doors opened.
Hundreds of buses a day pass through the train station at Krasnaya Polyana, thousands circulate throughout the Olympic complex. Every last one gets the same going over.
There is security everywhere. On the train where I’m writing this, two guards walk up and down the carriages sporting a look that makes the guys who patrol the Luas Red Line appear positively cuddly.
Looking out the window at the sparse brown forests that lead up to the mountain, guards pull the good out of cigarettes every few hundred yards. Stare out at the Black Sea and you can see grey gunships on the horizon.
You wouldn’t say there’s a grim atmosphere around the place but you’d hardly describe it as party time either. Unlike London 2012, there is no great sense of a meeting of world cultures. If you come across a non-Russian on a train or bus, they’re invariably connected to an athlete or working at the games in some capacity.
All spectators have had to send away for picture accreditation with their passport details on them, which they wear dangling from their necks to be scanned as they go into the venues.
The organisers say 70 per cent of the tickets have been sold. But most venues are only half full and on Monday they conceded that volunteers are being told to sit in the seats to take the bare look off some of the stadiums.
There’s no doubt that while the vast security has made these games safe – moreover, it’s made them feel safe – it has kept plenty of people away.
Moving around is a schlep and you spend your day passing through X-ray machines. On Sunday, I counted a dozen security checks – at train stations, venues and the press centre. It’s the only place I’ve been to that you are padded down every time you walk through the machine.
It’s also the only place I’ve ever been that I’ve had two apples confiscated. “Nyet food!” said the surly young man – the X-ray sentries are not nearly as jolly as the bus variety – before dumping them in the bin. For the life of me, I can’t work that one out.