Winter Olympics: climate of fear

The suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd late last year have contributed to the climate of fear starting to embrace the Winter Olympics being held in Sochi early next month.

At $US51 billion ($NZ62 billion), the Sochi Games are the most expensive yet, surpassing the $US40 billion spent by China on the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The games were already subject to a winter of discontent, as global leaders decided to stay away from the extravagant showcase in a pointed gesture against the punitive laws introduced against the gay community in Russia by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States, in particular, made its own statement by appointing openly gay former Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King as one as its Olympic representatives, despite Ms King having no obvious ties to the winter sports agenda.

Mr Putin responded by softening Russia's stance on gays as countries started selecting gay athletes to compete at Sochi. Also, Greenpeace members in prison on charges of hooliganism were released and allowed to go home.

Members of Russian band Pussy Riot were allowed out of prison to go home to their families, as Mr Putin tried to rebuild the reputation of the country.

These games are important to Mr Putin. Back in 2007, when Russia was bidding to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the huge amounts it was willing to spend were a point of pride, an enticement meant to win over officials of the International Olympic Committee.

Mr Putin travelled to Guatemala City to give a rare speech in English to the assembled IOC delegates, promising to turn Sochi into a world-class resort for a new Russia and the rest of the world.

His pledge to spend $US12 billion in Sochi dwarfed the bids of the other finalists from South Korea and Austria.

Stories of corruption and the misuse of public money are now daily occurrences from international media outlets.

The choice of Sochi meant everything had to be built from scratch. Poor planning meant walls of stadia had to be rebuilt several times as poor reconnaissance meant underground streams were left undiscovered until something collapsed.

Now, the twin terrorist attacks in Volgograd, within 24 hours of each other, has added new problems to the already troublesome games.

The attention of the Russian security forces is focused on the republic of Dagestan, which has become the hub of Muslim separatist violence in recent years, and on connections to the insurgent leader Doku Umarov.

Mr Umarov's influence appeared to be waning in recent years until he surfaced in a video in July ordering his followers to do whatever possible to attack Russia as it prepared to host the Winter Olympics.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the Volgograd attacks, Mr Umarov's threats - ignored at the time - now seem ominous as he had previously cited Russia's transportation networks as potential targets.

Now, questions are being posed as to whether the suicide bombings in Volgograd and one previous attack are the first volleys in Mr Umarov's promised campaign to disrupt the Olympics and discredit Mr Putin and his government.

So far, Olympic committees of countries planning to compete at Sochi have expressed their support for Russia and, at this stage, no country has said publicly it will not attend. Privately, prospects of having athletes injured, maimed or killed must be at the top of discussion and planning lists. If not, they should be.

For athletes, the Olympic Games are a pinnacle of their career and, as New Zealand athletes of the past can confirm, a boycott of any games leaves a gaping hole in their shining careers.

However, global terrorism is changing the face of international sport. Even at international rugby matches played in New Zealand, security is tight both for getting into the game and during the time it is played.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee must now consider the safety of this country's representatives at Sochi.

Even if the games are surrounded by a fortress-style wall, accompanied by guards with weapons and competing with some of the most sophisticated security measures yet seen, safety of New Zealand athletes is paramount.