PtG Comment 30.01.2014

United States of Olympic Security

Miles of chain link fences, Level 1 event eligible for assistance from the Department of Homeland Security and federal agencies, metal detectors, x-ray machines, radiation detectors, no-fly zones, Special Forces, air defence missiles, snipers, equipment to detect radioactive, biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and field hospital to take care of the potential victims of a terrorist attack.

Winter Olympics in Sochi? No, the Super Bowl in New Jersey (and New York). US takes no chances when it comes to security.

Super Bowl and Sochi

US takes no chances during the Super Bowl, and no chances during the Sochi Olympics. Can the focus on security for the two events help soften the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama? For the US government, the Super Bowl and the Sochi Games are closely linked. The Super Bowl takes place nine months after the bombing of Boston Marathon, and the two responsible for the bombing had close ties to Chechnya and the Caucasian region. The US fears more attacks from people with ties or sympathies with violent groups in the Caucasus, where Sochi is located.

Atlanta rules

This year, the Super Bowl will take place in New Jersey, with massive fan zones also being set up in New York, and especially around Madison Square Garden and Times Square (Super Bowl Boulevard). Thousands of supporters are expected to gather to watch the game at different places from East Rutherford to Manhattan to celebrate in front of the big screens. This makes the biggest event in the USA bigger than ever, also when it comes to security. Security measures taken at these types of events were developed before the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The method used has its roots in what is known as Atlanta Rules – a coordinated collaboration between all security agencies in the USA – the first of its kind.

US mobilisation in the Black Sea

But not all of US security equipment is being used in and outside the two neighbouring US states. Two American marine vessels have been sent to the Black Sea to monitor the security outside Sochi and be prepared to evacuate American athletes in case of an incident. The Russians are not happy about the US activity in the Black Sea and have not allowed NATO to operate during the Olympics (which has been the case during the last Olympics in Europe and North America). However, US and Russian generals have exchanged security information and discussed intelligence cooperation to secure the Olympics, and Putin and Obama have even discussed security at the Games over the phone – in spite of the fact that Obama is sending gay athletes to the opening ceremony.

New Cold War

The sour relationship between the USA and Russia has worsened since Putin took over as Russian President for the second time in 2012, and especially after Edward Snowden was granted asylum in Russia and because of disagreements over the situation in Syria. The question is whether the Olympic Games can help loosening up the relationship. Are we seeing an Olympic thaw?

Olympic Stress Syndrome

The Olympics contribute to new security arrangements and agreements between states that usually have no cooperation at all. This is what I call the Olympic Stress Syndrome. For instance, this stress syndrome was a contributing factor when Western and Chinese security agencies entered into cooperation and American companies sold intelligence equipment to China before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. This would not have happened had there been no Olympics in China. The (unwilling?) alliance between Russia and the US before the Sochi Games falls in line with Olympic security tradition –the Olympic Stress Syndrome.

US rationale

Why the strong US commitment to security in Sochi? Here are some possible reasons: Firstly, the US wants to support the US athletes if something fatal should happen. Secondly, the US wants to get intelligence information from Russia’s neighbouring regions and this is a perfect opportunity for them to enter Russian near abroad with a good excuse. Thirdly, the US wants a better relationship with Russia, particularly in the military field. During the conversations with Putin, Obama also discussed the crisis in Syria. This would possibly not have taken place if it was not for the Olympics. Edward Snowden can also be a reason.

Never too secure

40,000 police and military guards are protecting Sochi during the Olympics, and Sochi and its surrounding area are under an Olympic martial law. You need an Olympic pass to get in and move around, and Russian security police will arrest suspicious individuals. But they can never be too secure. For Russia the Syrian question is directly linked to the Sochi Games due to the many Circassians living in Syria with close ties to their homeland, were Sochi is the centre. That can be a reason for the Russians to seek cooperation with the US. Everything counts in Olympic security.

New fear spiral?

Back to  the Super Bowl. If a terrorist attack should hit the Super Bowl, the US will offer even more assistance to Russia during the forthcoming weeks. The security level of the Olympics will increase further. It will create a fear spiral and strongly impact the Games. If nothing happens in the US, Russia might still ask for more assistance. Russia might also be interested in best practice. That is something the Americans are probably willing to give. 


This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 28 August 2013. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on