United States has unleashed its heavy artillery on the Sochi Olympics. It's in
the form of an official Travel Alert to Americans issued by the Department of
State. It says U.S.
citizens "should remain attentive regarding their personal security at all
times." The Alert justifies itself with a litany of potential problems
that under scrutiny turn out to be largely non-issues. This has all the
appearances of a scare tactic.
It may cause a lot of Americans to reconsider attending. A New York Times headline warned, "Americans Traveling to Winter Games Cautioned." President Barack Obama already announced that he isn't going.
Previously, many potshots have been taken at the upcoming Olympics in media reports from various outlets. They too raised fears about attending the Games. But the new U.S. actions aren't merely potshotting. This is a frontal attack with big cannons.
All this comes in the wake of two highly-publicized terrorist events. The first was a series of two suicide bombings in Volgograd, Russia, in late December. The second was the discovery of six dead bodies in cars on the outskirts of Pyatigorsk, Russia, in early January.
On the Pyatigorsk incident, ABC News proclaimed, "Mystery bodies, explosives discovered near Winter Olympics site." The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, "Russia launches probe after six found dead near Sochi."
These were certainly tragic events. But the media should have paid a bit more attention to their geography. For instance, would a suicide bombing in the Italian Alps be a realistic worry for people at a large public gathering in Berlin, Germany? Or likewise an incident 100 miles north of Montreal to people in New York City? Those are examples of distances similar to the expanse between Volgograd and Sochi. That's what CBS News called "close."
In the other example, Pyatigorsk to Sochi? That's like Brooklyn, New York, to Brattleboro, Vermont, or Munich, Germany, to Alsace, France. ABC News and the Atlanta Journal Constitution both considered that proximity to be "near."
Then there's the State Department's cannon blast. The Travel Alert. Certainly, travelers should always be "attentive regarding their personal security" wherever they travel. It just makes sense. But why did the State Department make that the subject of an ominous-sounding Travel Alert?
For comparison, I checked to see if similar alerts are active for other places in the world. What I found is that there are currently two. One is for Egypt over the "continuing political and social unrest," and the other for Madagascar, related to its election season. It's because "gatherings intended to be peaceful can turn violent with little or no warning."
But the general instability in those two troubled countries is a far cry from the security-controlled environment that will be present at the Sochi Olympics complex. Indeed, wouldn't security and control be bywords of any Olympic venue past and future?
The United States had the experience of hosting the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. That was just five months after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. I searched for press coverage from the months preceding the opening of those Games. Who in the United States believed at that time that the al-Qaeda threat had been eliminated? I went looking for reportage regarding any suggested Olympic danger. There wasn't too much. NPR reported on February 7, 2002, "When the Winter Olympics gets under way in Salt Lake City Friday, officials promise the heaviest security ever for a sporting event." (Keep in mind that the earlier terrorist activities killed about 3000 people.) But on December 30, 2013, NPR carried this report: "Two suicide bombings in as many days have killed 31 people and raised concerns that Islamic militants have begun a terrorist campaign in Russia that could stretch into the Sochi Olympics in February."
Notice how the 2002 report has a reassuring tone, whereas the 2013 report seems alarmist. The tonal difference in coverage seems to belie the relative death totals. What is NPR up to?
There's no doubt that the Sochi Olympics presents a unique security challenge. And disasters at previous Olympics show there is a concrete risk of tragedy. But the media have failed to take into account that Putin's political enemies have been taunting him with suggestions of violence during his showpiece Olympics and urging boycotts. There's been little investigative journalism to differentiate between credible physical threats and the use of verbal threats in the media as a weapon. Overall, the news coverage that I've seen seems to suggest a goal of fomenting alarm, instead of simply reporting the facts.
No one should be surprised that media-based attacks against Russia and its leader would grow stronger during the Olympic season. Past media attacks, organized by Putin's political enemies, have been opportunistic and also founded upon fabricated allegations. Crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed on Putin's birthday. The initial media blitz over reputed former spy Alexander Litvinenko's poisoning in London occurred while Putin was attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Hanoi. The focus of the attendant news stories involved accusations of Putin's culpability. The Sochi Olympics now present Putin's enemies with an obvious opportunity for doing similar damage to his reputation. Strangely, Putin has never done anything to effectively counteract the incessant malicious media attacks against him.
As early as October 2012, efforts were made to draw the Kremlin's attention to the impending Olympics media problem. Russia without Spin, a Russian-American private sector initiative that I strongly support, was offering to help with its specialized expertise. But it was hard to find friends in the Kremlin for this project. Those within the administration, and leaders of its communications arms, ultimately seemed not to care about solving the problem. They appeared more focused on simply assuring their share of the state budget, even though the problem of Putin's terrible international reputation would go unaddressed in any serious and effective way.
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