Mahler: Threat of terrorism hangs over Sochi Olympics

A torchbearer participating in the Sochi 2014 Winter

A torchbearer participating in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay marches through the Volga River city of Volgograd, about 800 km (500 miles) south of Moscow. (Credit: Getty Images)

It's hard not to wonder how your average Olympic athlete is feeling about the upcoming Games. There you are, strapping on your Fitbit in the morning and putting yourself through hour after hour of physical punishment every day.

You come home exhausted at night -- from the slopes or the rink or wherever -- make yourself a giant smoothie, plop down in front of your TV and catch up on the latest news out of Sochi.

What do you learn? Well, on Sunday, a video surfaced in which the leader of a terrorist group claimed responsibility for last month's fatal bombings in Volgograd and promised "a surprise" for Sochi -- "a present from us for the Muslim blood that's been spilled." Turned out it was the same Chechen separatist commander who had previously called on Islamic militants to disrupt the 2014 Olympic Games -- or, as he referred to them: "Olympic revelries upon the bones of Caucasus people killed by Russians."


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On Tuesday, Russian security officers were searching for two "black widow" suicide-bombers -- another one was killed over the weekend -- whom they suspect are planning to attack the final stages of the torch relay. (Black widow is the slang for women seeking to avenge the deaths of their militant husbands.)

We've had terrorist attacks at the Olympics before. But this is the first time we've heard so many credible threats before the Games. It's also the first time the Games have been held in a region featuring two wars between the host country and native Islamic separatists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised that Sochi won't be another Munich, and he is turning the city into a police state to make good on that promise. But how much faith does anyone have in the integrity of the 1,500-square-mile security zone that Russia claims to have built around the Games?

The U.S. will have two warships in the nearby Black Sea -- a couple more high-value targets? -- in case Americans need to be evacuated en masse. It has also volunteered military support to help keep the Games safe, though there seems little chance that Putin will accept the offer.

Athletes know that their safety is in Russia's hands, which is not exactly a comforting thought. At a certain point -- and we may have reached it -- this becomes more than a distraction for those preparing for Sochi. Even if nothing ultimately happens to disrupt the Games, anxiety over that possibility is growing more intense by the day. How do you pysch yourself up to face world-class competition when you're worried that the stadium you'll be competing in will be blown to smithereens?

Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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