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Friday, October 28, 2016

By David Wharton, Los Angeles Times

SOCHI, Russia — As his plane approached Sochi-Adler International Airport, flying low over the coast, Eric Guay glanced out the window.

Warships sat anchored on the Black Sea below.

“That’s the first sight you get,” the Canadian skier said. “In a way, it makes you feel safe.”

Security has been a major concern leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

These Games are considered particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of their proximity to the North Caucasus, a region where Islamic militants have waged a violent insurgency.

Recent bombings in Volgograd, about 400 miles away, heightened fears, as did media reports that authorities were searching for three potential “black widow” suicide bombers thought to be in the area.

But the athletes who have arrived here over the last few days say they feel safe, in large part because of a very obvious military and security presence.

“From the moment you step off the plane, you’re showing credentials,” American short-track speedskater Jessica Smith said. “Everybody’s checking you at each stop you enter and you exit.”

It was just last summer that Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov posted a video calling for militants to take action against the Olympics. He decried the notion of sports events held “on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea.”

Then came the Volgograd bombings, which killed 34 people. A militant group from the Dagestan region claimed responsibility.

“This is no war zone but not the safest environment,” said bobsledder Chris Fogt, who took time off from competing after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to serve with the U.S. military in Iraq. “We kind of feel like something could happen.”

Heading into the Games, the U.S. Olympic Committee issued a memo to athletes, passing along State Department advice that they refrain from wearing conspicuous team clothing outside of secured areas.

The Australian Olympic Committee went a step further, restricting athletes to venues, the village and the official transport system. Ian Chesterman, the team’s chef de mission, said this week: “We take it seriously and it’s a good practice to define what degree of caution is required.”

All along, the International Olympic Committee and local organizers have insisted they can keep athletes and spectators safe. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made these Games his pet project, hoping they will be a showcase for his country.