SBJ/Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2014/Olympics

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  • Security takes the spotlight

    News around the Sochi Olympics last week began with reports of “black widows” and ended with a flurry of stories about families of athletes and fans canceling trips to the Games.

    Hospitality agencies and Olympic sponsors said it was the first time since the 2004 Athens Games that they could recall this much concern about terror threats. Agency and sponsor executives said the recent bombings in Volgograd, Russia, and reports of female suicide bombers in Sochi hadn’t resulted in any canceled trips — at least not yet — but they acknowledged that it has affected preparations for these Games.

    “It’s the most talked-about thing in many circles,” said Dave Mingey, president of GlideSlope, a consulting group that works with several Olympic sponsors. “There’s been heightened communication around various entities in terms of crisis needs should something occur. It’s questions like: Should an incident occur, how many planes could take off and get out? Should they strike down the mobile network, what is the viability of landlines? You’re seeing crisis plans go to a different degree.”

    What’s different about these Games from any other is that there’s been an announced and specific threat, said Doug Arnot, the director of Games operations for the 2012 London Olympics. A little over a week ago an Islamist militant group released a video taking credit for two recent suicide bombings in Volgograd that killed 34 people. They also said that there would be a “present” in Sochi.

    “If you’re a sponsor and you’ve seen a threat like this, and God forbid something does happen, and one of your principals or guests is impacted, you have a lot of explaining to do because effectively you’ve been warned and have disregarded the warning,” Arnot said. “Even if security advisers don’t feel the threat is all that significant, merely the fact that it’s been announced forces them to be doubly cautious in advising clients.”

    Most corporate sponsors have their own security staff assisting with planning. McDonald’s security staff, for example, talks regularly with the U.S. State Department and other Olympic sponsors about the threats. Last week, the security team briefed company executives on the state of security in Sochi and its contingency plans. But John Lewicki, McDonald’s head of global alliances, said the company is not making any changes to the size of its guest and employee program due to the escalated security threats in Sochi.

    “Every Games there are security matters, and this one seems to be more elevated,” Lewicki said. “At this point, we’re not changing anything. Diligence is the word of the day. We’ve got risk assessments and contingency plans.”

    A spokesman with Dow Chemical, which has been hosting hospitality programs at the Olympics since 1996, said the company has had some inquiries from guests about security. The company plans to have a security operations center in Sochi to support its guests and will be in regular communication with Russian officials and the U.S. State Department as well as other sponsors and the International Olympic Committee.

    Several sponsors, including McDonald’s, are supplementing their security staff with support from global emergency and security companies. Both Global Rescue, which is working with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and International SOS, which is working with 350 organizations representing more than 10,000 travelers to Sochi, plan to have planes available in Sochi for medical or emergency evacuation.

    John Rendeiro, vice president of global security and intelligence for International SOS, said the company fielded calls from clients regarding Sochi security last week. Clients wanted to review contingency plans and discuss what to do if something happens. Concern, he said, was “above average” and exceeded anything the company had seen since the 2004 Athens Games.

    “There was some concern about terrorism in Athens, but you weren’t talking about the terrorists having an operating base so close, so this is pretty high on the scale of concern and caution and requiring sophisticated preparation,” Rendeiro said. “You want to know where you’re going, how you’re getting there and be prepared with … a response plan if something happens.”

    A Russian officer searches a driver while his car is checked at an entrance in Sochi.
    Photo by: AP IMAGES
    Russia reportedly is spending more than $2 billion on its security operation and will have more than 60,000 security personnel in the area. There will be almost a 1-to-10 ratio of security personnel to guests.

    “We have never seen the type of security that we are now seeing in Russia at any prior Olympic Games in terms of credentialing, surveillance and amount of resources that have been committed,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, which is sending a staff of more than 900 to Sochi.

    Arnot, the London Games’ operations chief who is consulting with Sochi organizers, said that the specific threats ahead of these Games actually should help security.

    “In many cases, you spend so much time preparing that you become almost numb, but these incidents and videotapes have served as a wake-up call that this is very real,” Arnot said. “I don’t mean that security forces don’t realize that, but it puts them on a higher state of alert. It also sort of makes everyone else a part of the security team. Spectators, volunteers and others will be a bit more vigilant and a bit more careful. They can be helpful.”

    While many companies aren’t changing travel plans, security concerns have caused some sports industry veterans to reconsider their trips to Sochi. Circe Wallace of Wasserman Media Group, who represents Australian gold-medal snowboarder Torah Bright, was planning to bring her 12-year-old daughter, Ava, to the Sochi Games. It would have been Ava’s first Olympics, and Wallace was looking forward to sharing the cultural experience with her. But last October, amid reports about hotels not being completed and construction being delayed, she decided to leave Ava home.

    When reports surfaced last week that a female suicide bomber described as a “black widow” was in Sochi, Wallace felt good about her choice.

    “It didn’t sound fun anymore,” she said. “It didn’t sound like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It sounded difficult.”

    Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.



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