The Israeli security service charged with protecting the country’s 10-person delegation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi is relatively sanguine in the face of mounting security concerns, a sharp departure from the tones sounded by US lawmakers in the run-up to the Games.
A spokesperson for the Shin Bet told The Times of Israel that the organization has “very, very good ties with the relevant services” in Russia and that, while Israel always considers its delegations to be under greater threat than its peers, there was “nothing out of the ordinary” ahead of the Sochi Games, slated to begin on February 7.
The head of the Israeli delegation concurred. “We trust the Russian security services,” said Vladimir Shklar, who will lead the five Israeli athletes at the Games. “The Russians have the village closed off hermetically.”
An Associated Press report last week depicted three potential suicide bombers prowling the Sochi region. All were said to be widows of fallen Muslim fighters intent on revenge. One of them, Ruzanna Ibragimova, is believed to have entered the city of Sochi.
In late December, Muslim terrorists from Dagestan struck in Volgograd, Russia, killing 34 people in two suicide attacks. In recent videos, terrorists have pledged further violence during the Olympics.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rallied hard to bring the games to Sochi and is deeply invested in its success, told ABC News this week that Russia has “adequate means available to us” to protect the athletes and spectators and that the police and secret services were prepared to “do whatever it takes” to ensure that the games were not disrupted by violence.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Arkadi Dvorkovich told the network that the state had deployed 40,000 security personnel in the area.
This has not soothed US lawmakers. “I am very concerned. The Russian government needs to be more cooperative,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R. Michigan), the head of the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee told CNN.
US President Barack Obama spoke with Putin by phone Tuesday and discussed how best to have “a safe and secure Sochi Olympics, for which the United States has offered its full assistance,” the White House said.
The sticking point, however, would seem to revolve around the word assistance. “I think fundamentally, they don’t want to admit that they don’t have complete control here and that they might need some help,” former Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell told CBS News.
The concern in the US has led several hockey players to ask that their families not attend the Games. The US ski team, a relatively affluent organization, has hired a private company, Global Rescue, to provide additional security and evacuation plans in the event of a disaster, NBC reported.
In Israel, the Shin Bet has been in charge of protecting Israeli Olympians ever since the 1952 Helsinki Games, the first in which Israel participated. In the 1972 Munich Games, in which Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli Olympians, both West Germany, which was looking to present the peaceful side of the country, and Israel, perhaps still wrapped in post-1967 euphoria, were woefully ill prepared for the Olympics from a security perspective. Shmuel Lalkin, the head of the delegation at the time, sent a letter of concern to the chief security officer of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports several weeks before the start of the Games. He noted that the delegation was to be vulnerably housed on the ground floor, that the doors didn’t lock and that the building was too conspicuously marked.
Arie Shumar, the security officer, wrote back a letter that began with the following: “Dear Mr. Lalkin: As Manager of the Israeli Olympic team it would be advisable for you to concentrate on sports,” according to an account in “Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response.”
On August 23, some two weeks before the attack, Lalkin, a major in the IDF reserves, requested a firearm from the Israeli embassy’s security officer in West Germany. He was turned down.
Today the Shin Bet said it could not discuss what sort of precautions were in place. Locked doors, flags, and the presence of on-site security officers were all part of security procedures, which could not be elaborated upon, a spokesperson said, but he stressed that the delegation was small and that the Russian security personnel “had fulfilled our requests.”
Shklar also declined to relate to the security situation. He said, though, that the Israeli athletes, a figure skating mixed pair [Andrea Davidovich and Evgeny Krasnapolsky], a male figure skater [Oleksii Bychenko], a male short track speed skater [Vladislav Bykanov] – all initially hailing from the former Soviet states – and a male skier [Virgile Vandeput] originally from Belgium, were focused on one thing: aiming high.
Shklar and the Olympic Committee of Israel, which has come under fire for barring potential competitors who have met the International Olympic Committee’s minimal standards but not those of the Israeli squad, has distributed a list of the athletes’ names and their projected accomplishments. None is expected to finish within the top ten.
Shklar, asked if perhaps these Olympians could outdo Israel’s summer athletes, who did not win any medals at the London Olympics, said, “I wish.”