One of the media’s favorite pre-Olympics topics was security threats at the Sochi Games. When we were traveling in Europe prior to arriving in Sochi, we could tell when the U.S. media ramped up the hype on how unsafe our destination was going to be. We got many email and social media messages from concerned relatives and friends every time this happened. They worried about our personal safety, warned us about electronic hacking and being robbed of our belongings, and wondered would we be reconsidering or canceling our plans.
At one point, even I started to question the wisdom of proceeding on to Sochi. The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning, with a replacement update through March, 2014 which they called an “alert.” We had already purchased a comprehensive travel insurance policy with medical evacuation and repatriation coverage in the event of a personal accident or unsafe situation. Pete had thoroughly researched the issues regarding electronic security, and we followed through with the most pertinent recommendations prior to leaving the United States. If you’d like the details, here’s a link to his plan. I responded to all the personal messages by saying thanks, we’re aware of the situation, we’ve implemented layered security precautions on our devices, and we’ve got great insurance. Still, I was uneasy and trying to stay positive.
It’s very hard to separate the sensationalist media implications from actuality until you’re there. Even so, the widespread story about an NBC journalist getting hacked within minutes of arriving in Sochi warranted a review of what actually happened before we arrived in Sochi. This story didn’t pass the smell test. First of all, the guy opens an email and “downloaded a virus.” Who downloads an unknown file without checking it out first? Also, his Android phone and Mac computer were straight out of the box, with no known virus protection. Someone smarter than us summarizes the fraud in this viral story:
By the way, the easy way to figure out where journalists commit fraud is by watching for “passive voice”. Journalists normally avoid passive voice, preferring stronger language. But, when they need to hide things, they passive voice to cover up details. Saying “was hacked” covers up the fact that Richard Engel hacked himself by knowingly downloading a hostile Android app. In other word, active voice wouldn’t have worked, because it would have required identifying who put the virus on the phone. He couldn’t report that a “hacker put the virus on the phone” because the hacker didn’t, Richard Engel did. He couldn’t very well have reported, in the active voice, “I downloaded the virus”. Thus, the passive voice, “the phone was hacked”, avoiding this inconvenient detail of who did what.
Nice job, NBC. Write a story about being hacked in Sochi while you’re in Moscow. Visit spurious websites. Download a hostile attachment on your new Android phone after you’ve deliberately disabled its security. #Fail We felt a lot better about our electronics before we even got to Sochi after realizing this was fraudulent sensationalism, pure and simple.
The second big fear promulgated in the media was personal safety based on terroristic threats, which we took more seriously due to the December, 2013 incidents in Volgograd. Immediately, major media outlets began speculating about security issues in Sochi, 400 miles distant. We knew we’d be arriving at a heretofore unknown to us airport, taking public transportation to event venues, and at the venues themselves – all great locations for a potential terrorist attack. The Games have been targets for terrorists since Munich, 1972. We resolved to be very much on guard.
When we arrived in Sochi, we immediately noticed an increased security presence, much more than we were used to even in post-9/11 America. There were police, private security guards, Olympic security volunteers, and even Cossacks positioned everywhere: at transportation hubs and bus stops, in front of banks and in public areas, and as you might imagine, all over the public venues. It was clear the Russians were taking security very, very seriously. As I wrote at the time, the overall effect of this was reassuring, not forbidding.
At the Olympic venues, the security precautions were even more palpable. Whenever you entered a venue or a transportation hub, you were required to present your event tickets and your spectator credentials, which you had to initially validate in person with your passport at the beginning of your stay at an official accreditation center. This process data populated the security screening system, which photo-identified you as your belongings and yourself were scanned. There were also friendly same-sex, non-invasive patdowns, performed methodically and non-apologetically, but with a smile and a thank you. We saw no one object to these stringent measures.
As we traveled by commuter train from the Adler Transportation Hub to the Mountain Cluster, I noticed armed police officers stationed about every 100 feet along the elevated water lines that were parallel to the train tracks, which ran along the river. When we arrived at Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain transportation hub, there were Cossacks patrolling the public areas, watching the escalators and making other observations. On the bus ride up to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Sports Center, we noticed snow camouflage blinds with armed Special Forces on skis watching the roadway, which zig zagged up the mountain side. The steep, almost vertical mountain sides made for great vantage points.
As we walked along the Black Sea in our Adler resort neighborhood – a neighborhood with very few non-Russians, I might add – several miles from the Coastal Cluster, we could see the warships anchored off shore, ready for deployment in case of an incident. Again, while some may have thought this was overkill, we appreciated it. Even the sensationalist media conceded security efforts were paramount and comprehensive, with over 37,000 officers (public and private) contributing to the security presence.
Ever vigilant, the media is now reporting that security is “uneven,” or even relaxed, while simultaneously confirming our observations on the way to the Mountain Cluster, and at the mountain venues themselves. Other outlets complain that the United States is being “shut out” of the Russian security operation despite the fact that the American ambassador to Russia expressed satisfaction at the level of cooperation.
What should you believe? Our thoughts: consider the source and orientation of the information you’re using to form an opinion. Nothing beats first hand experience. Is there the potential for agenda-based communication? Absolutely! Despite the calls for depoliticization of the Games, our observations were that media reports were definitely agenda-driven.
While we can’t bring ourselves to say there may have been some who hoped for a security-based fail, a more cooperative or positive reporting stance may have influenced visitors to come to the Games, rather than staying away. Coupled with the negative reporting about unfinished construction details and cultural differences, we think casual media consumers definitely have the wrong impression about Russia and the Sochi Games.
We certainly don’t have rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia’s history and politics, but in our opinion, these Olympic Games were an opportunity to build bridges. It seems to us as though that was the last thing our politicians and western media wanted to do. For shame.