Sochi Balances Safety and Revelry ; Tight Olympics Security Runs from Obvious to Subtle and Sophisticated

By Herszenhorn, David M | International New York Times, February 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Sochi Balances Safety and Revelry ; Tight Olympics Security Runs from Obvious to Subtle and Sophisticated


Herszenhorn, David M, International New York Times


While heightened security is now standard at all major world events, this is the first time the Olympic Games are being held on the edge of a war zone.

Before boarding the new trains serving Sochi and the Olympic sites here, passengers must pass through metal detectors and place their bags on X-ray machines -- just as in airports. What many do not realize is that they are also being scanned by a far more sophisticated system that gauges a person's emotional state in an effort to identify potential terrorists.

The system, developed by Elsys Corporation, a Russian company based in St. Petersburg, uses computer analysis of live video images to measure tiny muscle vibrations in the head and neck known as vestibular-emotional reflexes. Called VibraImage, the system is part of the effort by the Russian government to protect the Olympic Games. It is designed to detect someone who appears unremarkable but whose agitated mental state signals an imminent threat.

VibraImage is just one aspect of the remarkable security in place in Sochi, an initiative that Russian officials refuse to discuss but that is adding to what is believed to be the most expensive Olympics. The effort involves tens of thousands of officers deployed from all over the country, including Siberia, the Arctic and the Far East, as well as warships in the Black Sea and surveillance blimps overhead.

Train stations are also equipped with less subtle security features, including steel capsules that security officials can use to seal up a suspicious device that they think may be about to explode.

Transportation hubs are hardly the only places with intense monitoring. In addition to tickets for the various events, all fans visiting the Olympic Park over the age of 2 must have registered in advance for a Spectator Pass -- a laminated credential, which must be worn around the neck and is scanned at the entrance and exit to the park and again on entrance and exit at the various arenas and other venues.

Registering for the pass requires submitting personal data, including birth date, passport details, a telephone number and a photograph. As each fan arrives at the main bank of metal detectors and scans his or her pass, the photograph appears on a screen so officers can verify each visitor's identity. Only when the security system recognizes that a pass is valid does a green arrow light up; a visitor is then invited to pass through a turnstile and into the park.

The passes have become so ubiquitous that at times it seems everyone in the city is wearing them, even in central Sochi, far from the Olympic Park.

While heightened security is now standard at all major world events, the Sochi Games are the first Olympic Games being held on the edge of a war zone -- the long-simmering Muslim insurgency in the North Caucasus, just on the other side of the mountains. President Vladimir V. Putin and other officials have promised that fans and athletes will be safe and that the security apparatus will not detract from the convivial atmosphere.

It is a difficult balance.

Rather than wearing their routine police uniforms, the vast majority of security officers are dressed in a purple version of the official Olympics gear made by the sportswear company Bosco -- a dazzling and gaudy quilt design intended to patch together folk designs from many parts of Russia. In addition, most officers are not displaying any visible weapon, a striking contrast from most events in Russia, where the police often appear heavily armed. …

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