Keith Strudler: Terror And The Olympics

Jan 3, 2014

In a New Year’s announcement, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach declared that “terrorism must never triumph” and that Russia would host a “safe and secure” Winter Olympic Games next month. Like most New Year’s resolutions, we can only hope this rings true. For the current time, it seems a lofty goal. Just Monday, the Russian city of Volgograd suffered its second suicide bombing in 24 hours, this one on a passenger bus killing at least 16 people. The previous day’s attack killed at least 18 at a rail station. Both appear linked to Chechen rebels and a movement to attack civilians in route to disrupting next month’s Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. While these attacks happened hundreds of miles away from the Olympic site, if the radical rhetoric is to be believed, these are just part of a larger process of eventually infiltrating the Olympic sites and venues themselves, something that hasn’t happened in any wide scale in the history of the Modern Olympic Games.

Certainly, there’s been Olympic terror before, most notably at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. Atlanta had a bomb explode in Centennial Park, which created as much controversy as it did carnage. But in recent years, truly beginning with the Athens Summer Games, host cities have dedicated seemingly more resource to security than to pretty much anything else, up to and maybe including facilities. The price-tag for Russia is around $2 billion, about the same spent on the London Games. And every host in recent memory has vastly underestimated security costs, kind of like how you forget incidentals on your vacation budget. Rio will certainly feel this fiscal outlay both for the Summer Games as well as the imminent World Cup, where they both have to keep out violent extremists and essentially invite them in, in the form of soccer fans.

Despite Russia’s expenditures, and the IOC’s steely resolve, there is no way to fully guarantee the safety of the Games, especially given the number of spectators that travel freely throughout the fortnight. Granted, perhaps less “freely” in Russia than other places, given their policies and protocols. And if the current Chechen scare tactics work, there may be fewer spectators than they might like, particularly those who would travel from other, assumedly safer lands to watch these Games. Athletes have already expressed apprehensions over the recent uprisings, some Americans questioning attending the opening ceremonies because of the perceived risks. And whether it’s reminiscent of the Naked Gun scene in the baseball stadium with the queen or that awful movie called Black Sunday about a terrorist plot against the Super Bowl, it is nearly impossible to envision a large scale gathering like the Olympics, particularly given its political undertones, without worrying about what could happen.

All of which should remind us of one thing. The Olympics Games, despite their apolitical rhetoric, do not exist in a vacuum – and never have.  The Games of the 1920’s and 30’s reflected the paranoid Supernationalism of that time, just like the Cold War Era Games were a fierce global battle between the West and the Soviet Empire. As much as the IOC has comically insisted the Games will not privilege political posturing, like the Black Power salute of 1968, they by definition do through their mere existence. This is what happens when you bring together a select group of 200 plus territories to decide who’s best, under the false pretense of global truce and now corporate capitalism. In the end, some people in this world just won’t agree with that. Which makes it almost ironic that it will cost some $2 billion in capital just to maintain that façade, a Disneyland of five rings.

People have wondered what Olympic Era we’re in, perhaps through the post-modern era of human commodity. Maybe now we have the answer. Perhaps we’ve entered, sadly, the era of Olympic Terror, where the greatest challenges aren’t the events themselves, or even the buildings or hotels or any of that, but simply just making it through safely. And doing so becomes a victory, both real and symbolic, against terror itself, not unlike building the freedom tower or going back to school in Columbine.

Now whether that’s sustainable or not is another issue. For now, it’s up to Russia and their security measures, who have promised the world its safest games ever. Let’s hope for everyone that’s not just a hollow New Year’s resolution.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.