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Putin’s ‘ring of steel’ becomes obvious at Olympics

By William Douglas
McClatchy Foreign Staff

SOCHI, Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personally promised ‘‘ring of steel’’ to secure the 2014 Winter Olympics is taking shape.

Armed soldiers in hooded drab-green parkas stood guard Tuesday at the end of one runway at the Sochi Airport, where Olympic athletes, spectators and foreign dignitaries were beginning to arrive.

A camouflaged anti-aircraft station rests atop a hill near the cluster of ice event stadiums at the games’ Black Sea coastal venue.

Sochi is beginning to resemble a police state, and that’s just fine with the Olympic athletes, fans and locals.

‘‘I feel pretty good about it, I mean they are trying as hard as they can,’’ said U.S. bobsled pusher Chris Fogt, an Army captain who worked in intelligence and security in Iraq after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. ‘‘Something happened in Atlanta in ’96, it can happen here. … I think that they are trying their hardest and they are doing everything they can.’’

British short track speed skater Jon Eley said: ‘‘The security is good, not over the top, and we feel safe.’’

The safety of the athletes could be tested, as two members of Austria’s Olympic committee reportedly received a letter containing threats to kidnap skier Marlies Schild and skeleton competitor Janine Flock at the Winter Olympics, which officially open Friday.

Terrorist threats, the proximity of Sochi to troubled spots like Chechnya, and the general angst of hosting a large-scale event in the post-9/11 age have unnerved some people to the point of staying away from the games.

A poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of Americans believe that holding the Winter Olympics in Russia was a bad idea, while 32 percent thought it was a good decision.

Of those who disapprove of the games being in Russia, 62 percent cited the potential for terrorism or general security issues as the reasons.

After hearing concerns about Sochi security from Washington and other world capitals, Putin vowed to encircle Sochi in a ‘‘ring of steel’’ to discourage or thwart any terrorist activity. From the looks of things, he’s aiming to deliver on his promise.

Top U.S. security officials are telling President Barack Obama that all appropriate steps are being taken to keep Americans safe in Sochi.

White House spokesmen said Obama received an update Tuesday on security for the Winter Olympics. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan were among the officials taking part. Leaders from the FBI and the Pentagon also joined.

The White House said Obama directed his team to work closely with Russia and others to make the games safe.

The Olympic Park and Olympic Village railway stations — critical transportation hubs for moving people from the coastal region to the mountain events — look more like airports than rail terminals.

The number of police officers, soldiers and Russian Cossacks walking beats at the stations has grown in recent days. A security force of 40,000 — police officers, military and Federal Security Service agents — are expected to descend on this city of 400,000 for the games.

Passengers must go through metal detectors and have their bags X-rayed before gaining entry to the stations; security officials will be at the ready for pat-downs. And, there’s been an increase in the number of police officers and soldiers who stroll the aisles of passenger trains.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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