Ghosts of Munich Haunt Sochi Olympics in Wake of Russia Bombings

The Israeli who warned about lax security in 1972, and later vowed that Israel would be back, expects Sochi to come off safely, despite the explosions in Volgograd

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Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

A Russian police officer and a police dog patrol a street in Sochi, Russia, on Dec. 30, 2013

The two bombs that killed at least 31 people in the Russian city of Volgograd on Sunday and Monday confirmed an uncomfortable truth for the organizers of the 22nd Winter Games, which will open in six weeks: no Olympics in history has faced such a clear threat of terrorist attacks. In preparation, Russia has established a special security zone in Sochi that will run 60 miles along the coast of the Black Sea and 25 miles inland. Entrance will be restricted to residents, workers and ticket holders, all of whom will have been screened in advance. Drones will patrol the sky, speedboats the sea, and Russian troops the surrounding mountains.

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The extraordinary measures are intended to protect all visitors to the Games. But one national team — the Israeli team — is watched with particular care. Each member of the small team has undergone “a very extensive security briefing, so they know exactly what to do and what not to do,” says Vladimir Shklar, the vice president of Israel’s Olympic Committee, who will head his country’s delegation to Sochi. The instruction is standard for Israeli athletes who compete abroad. (Israel is sending only five athletes and two coaches to Sochi. The modest number has less to do with any security concerns than the fact that the Mediterranean nation is no winter-sports powerhouse.)

Israel has protected its Olympic athletes since the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where, in the predawn hours of Sept. 5, eight Palestinian militants overran the Israeli quarters in the lightly guarded Olympic Village, beginning a drama that ended with 11 Israeli athletes dead and started a new era of precaution and vigilance encasing events that reliably draw the world’s attention. Five of the eight assailants were killed on the tarmac; the three survivors were later released by West Germany.

(MORE: Is Sochi Safe Enough for the Olympics?)

“Listen, the security situation of Munich was a bad one,” recalls Shmuel Lalkin, head of Israel’s delegation to the Munich Games. Lalkin visited the site before the 1972 Games began and realized it posed a security threat to his team. His warnings to both the German hosts and Israeli officials went unheeded, however, and he awoke to gunfire and watched the hostage situation unfold throughout the day. The next day he presided over the memorial service.

“I stood in the Olympic Stadium and said we will come back,” Lalkin, now retired, tells TIME. “Now, this is one of the Games we come back to.”

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Sochi sits at the edge of the North Caucasus, where Islamist militants are trying to establish an emirate in an area that comprises a patchwork of Muslim territories that include Chechnya and Dagestan. The attacks in Volgograd — a suicide bombing at a railway station on Sunday and another one on a crowded bus on Monday morning — occurred several hundred miles north of both Sochi and the militants’ home area. No group has taken responsibility for either blast, but the Chechen rebel leader Dukov Umarov in July urged his fighters to “do their utmost to derail” the $52 billion Sochi Games, which he described as “Satanic dances on the graves of our ancestors.” The reference was to Circassians, a Turkic Muslim people who succumbed to Russian conquest in the 19th century and were later expelled from the area.

“We have to remember that the terror attacks in Russia are because of internal tension between the Caucasus republics and Russia. It has nothing to do with Israel and the Jews,” says Shklar. “But of course we have to remember, wherever we are, we attract fire.”

Shklar is impressed by the precautions the government of President Vladmir Putin has taken. “We trust the Russian government. It’s making a great effort to secure the place. I was there in [London 2012] Summer Games, and it was very, very difficult to get in and out.”

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Lalkin, the veteran of 1972, agrees. “The problem in Munich is no one took care of our team in the village,” he says, “not the Germans and not the Israelis.”

Shklar says the athletes know how much has changed. “Look,” he says, “the Munich events always accompany Israeli athletes. We cannot escape it. But that doesn’t mean we fear because of it.”

With reporting by Yonit Farago and Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv