KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- In a week, no one is going to be talking about the hotel rooms, or the double toilets, or the Russian mobster hackers, or even the stray dogs. (Of which I'll confess to seeing worryingly few.) The Olympic Games kick off Friday, and, as is always the case with the Olympics, once they get moving, the events themselves will shoulder out all the other stories. All the problems, all the corruption and graft, all the human rights abuses, they will all become sidebars, because that is just how sports works. It's not right, but anyone who has paid even passing attention to American sports over the past 50 years will find that central fact impossible to deny. The games always win out, even when they shouldn't. This is what Putin has been counting on all along. He is not a stupid man.
Besides, all told, it's really not that horrible here. The journalist complaints about their facilities have already crossed over from legitimate (and sometimes scared) concerns about Sochi's readiness to host this global event into the oddly reassuring realm of banal media whining and are unlikely to turn back. Sochi isn't 100 percent ready, but it's not a cesspool either. The locals are helpful -- they've somehow mastered the delicate act of politely giving you bad news in a language you don't speak -- and, from my own experience, basic requests have been handled and satisfied in a reasonably quick fashion. Quicker than I could ever get anything done in New York anyway. All told, the inconveniences of Sochi seem like a larger problem from outside than they do from inside, and one could argue they're being magnified by a rubbernecking social media gaggle openly reveling in Sochi Ruin Porn, concern-trolling disguised as Europhobia disguised as a good old-fashioned Internet pile-on. It's Sochi organizers as Justine Sacco.
(Here's a note to friends back home: I appreciate if you're worried about us, but there is a fine line between "worry" and "being totally unhelpful." Good example: Yesterday Lindsay Jones, an NFL reporter for USA TODAY Sports -- and my travel companion for the JFK-Amsterdam-Moscow-Sochi 30-hour journey here -- posted a picture of a gondola ride she took back from slopestyle qualifying. It's a gorgeous view because, well, she's in the mountains, high in the air. Within seconds of tweeting the view, one of the first responses was "based on the reports no way in hell I'd get in that thing." Now ignoring the fact that this is a gondola, and if Russians know how to do anything, it's building a damn gondola. Secondly, at the moment that tweet was sent, Jones was still inside the gondola. This is not helpful. We are still inside the gondola here.)
So this is all going to pass, all these early grousings. They always do. There's only one thing that could happen that these Olympics wouldn't be able to overcome. It's the thing everyone was fretting about in the first place.
During the first 10 minutes of my time in Sochi, during which I took a media bus from the airport into the mountains toward my hotel, I could have been killed by a terrorist 10 different ways.
I counted. Here they are:
- A car full of explosives could have been driven right up to the baggage claim.
- A bomb could have been planted under the bus with everyone's luggage. (All told, the bomb-under-the-bus is a lingering paranoid fear in Sochi.)
- One of the dozen abandoned cars along side the two-lane road all the way up to the mountains could have been wired to explode.
- Any of the random kids smoking alongside the road could have been wearing a suicide vest.
- A car on this two-lane road of roughly 70 km/hr speed limit could have slammed into our bus, either knocking it off the road or, potentially, off a cliff.
- A van could have slammed on its brakes in front of us and opened to a group of people firing shotguns.
- One of the brand-new bridges could be taken out with a surface-to-air -- or surface-to-surface -- missile. Or maybe even a well-placed sledgehammer swing.
- Any of the half-dozen tunnels could be been blocked off at either end, leaving everyone inside trapped.
- Ricin released in the air? Sure.
- A dirty bomb, or one of those Loose Russian Nukes from "24," could go off anywhere in the 40-mile radius.
I'm sure I missed some. Some are more likely than others; all are unlikely. But all are possible. I know this is a bit ridiculous; I'm digging too deep into this out of both fanciful imagination and (mostly) poetic license. You'll have to forgive me: When everyone from your mother to Matt Lauer has been telling you for three months how much they think you're going to die, it tends to darken the perspective, even when you're mulling on hypotheticals. But the point is not that any of these things are likely to happen. Only that they could. And let there be no doubt that they could.
So much has been made of the overwhelming security at these Olympics, and they're an undeniable presence; it's difficult not to be cowed by these thick, scowling, massive men, all wearing black and always chewing on something. But they are just people. They are not superhumans able to suss out every possible threat and neutralize it. The Ring of Steel is a handy phrase, but there are holes, because there are holes everywhere, because we live on earth.
This is supposed to be the most secure Olympics ever, and I have no doubt that is true. But it's not even close to entirely secure, because nothing is close to entirely secure. The Olympics take place in an open society -- one could argue society is more open in Sochi right now than anywhere else in Russia for the last several years -- and you cannot 100 percent secure an open society. It has been a while since we've had a successful terrorist attack in the United States, but there was a time that we all understood this fact: When you decide that you value a place where you can walk around freely, you implicitly accept the risk that monsters will attempt to exploit that freedom. Understanding that risk, and moving forward regardless, is the only real way to remain the same people after an attack as you were before -- the only way to win.
When it comes to an event like this -- in which explicit, specific threats, by potential perpetrators only a few miles away, have been leveled against anyone who dare attend this global spectacle -- you either must accept these risks and the possibility that something like this could happen … or you decide not to have an Olympics at all. The real issue here isn't last-minute shuffling to finish hotels, or the "relocation" of stray dogs, or even Russia's repulsive LGBT legislation. It's terrorism. It's always been terrorism. These Games are taking place in an area that is uniquely designed to provide opportunity for violent mischief, with a motivated, engaged group of potential actors. And if something happens, everything else will fade away. No one will remember any of this, or any of the events themselves. This will be just the Games where that happened. And every Games moving forward will be viewed through that prism, and that prism only.
That's how these Olympics -- and maybe all future Olympics -- will be judged. Everything else is just a distraction. This is all that will matter. They're doing the best they can here. The only question is whether that will be enough. They've got 17 days to keep it together. The Games haven't even started yet, but the countdown has already begun.
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