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Column: Staging the Winter Olympics in an Age of Maximum Security

Russia’s efforts to ensure security at the Winter Olympics in Sochi are threatening to turn a celebration of sport into a grueling experience for all involved.

Security has been a special concern since July 2013, when Doku Umarov, a Chechen separatist field commander who now calls himself the Emir of the Caucasus, called on the “mujahideen” to “prevent the Olympic revelries upon the bones of Caucasus people killed by Russians.” In his final big interview before the opening ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that the most expensive sporting event in world history would not see a repeat of the horrors of Munich in 1972.

“If we allow ourselves to show weakness, to show fear, we will aid those terrorists in reaching their goals,” Putin said, adding that the authorities would make sure security measures would not be “excessive, too obvious” or “put pressure on competition participants and guests.”

So far, though, the security measures have been obvious and oppressive — and the athletes and guests have yet to arrive. Residents of Sochi have endured emergency evacuations of the new railway station in Adler. Rail commuters must get special permission to transport liquids, laser and high-frequency devices, bicycles, tools and winter sports equipment. Since Jan. 7, out-of-town cars have been banned from entering the Sochi area and required to park in special lots at least 60 miles from the city center. Nikolai Yarst, a reporter for the Ura.ru site in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, visited checkpoints at the city limits and found long lines of cars with Sochi plates awaiting a painstaking examination by police.

Rallies and demonstrations require permission from local authorities and security officials (which means a de facto ban). Local stores and restaurants have been forced to sign a document binding them to take deliveries only at night and to stock up enough supplies to last until March 22. According to a report on a popular local forum, www.blogsochi.ru, transport disruptions and security barriers are forcing local businesses to lay off workers or simply wind down until the games end.

By presidential decree, Russians arriving in Sochi between now and Feb. 14 must register in person with the local authorities within three days of arrival unless they stay at a hotel. Police have been conducting blanket ID checks on the streets to catch violators. According to lawyer Kaloi Akhilgov, residents of the unstable Caucasus regions Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya are being discouraged from visiting at all. As of Jan. 13, the FSB security service was searching in Sochi for a Dagestani woman named Ruzanna Ibragimova, a separatist fighter’s widow suspected of plotting a suicide bombing.

“Be prepared,” Yarst wrote on Ura.ru. “At any moment a person in uniform may approach you and forbid something.”

Putin said in his interview that 40,000 police and troops had been detailed to ensure security in Sochi. According to some reports, they are themselves treated as if they are a risk. The St. Petersburg news site Fontanka.ru reported that cops from Russia’s second city, sent to Sochi for the Olympics, were living in sealed-off barracks without access to the city, men and women strictly separated and forbidden to drink alcohol. Two officers were recently detained after escaping the encampment to go home.

Volunteers and hired service personnel complain about poor living conditions and extra-tight security. They are not allowed to bring any food, even fruit or chocolates, into the Olympic park, and the fare served on site is woefully inadequate. The workers are given food coupons that were printed during the shortages of the late 1980s to trade for meals at the canteen. Their complaints are invariably anonymous because they have been warned not to post anything negative about the Olympic preparations on social networks.

Frequent posts describe Sochi as “a concentration camp.” They complain about the security excesses, ridiculous “aesthetic” bans such as one on hanging laundry on balconies, and the pre-Olympic elimination of stray animals, which activists are attempting to rescue. The measures are akin to those taken when Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics in 1980.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman who runs Chechnya for Putin, declared recently that Doku Umarov was dead. But he has not produced a body, so the “emir” may well be plotting a strike on Sochi from some mountain hideaway. Even if he is gone, Putin’s Russia has ample enemies to justify paranoia. The stakes are high: An attack on Putin’s games could forever undermine his prestige. That is the best guarantee for Sochi visitors and locals that the Olympics will not be a replay of Munich — and that the security arrangements will hardly be invisible.

Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg View.