If Terrorists Attack the Games in Sochi, Don’t Evacuate. Play On.

Posted on January 27, 2014


So they want to scare everyone into stopping the Games?  Don’t let them.

Amid concerns about terrorism and security at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, on the coast of the Black Sea in Russia, both the US and Canada have contingency plans in place to evacuate their athletes in the event of an attack at the Games.  The US is positioning warships in the Black Sea in case “something happens like a major terrorist attack and we need to get Americans out,” as a source told CNN.*  Canadian athletic teams, for their part, may decide to skip the Olympics if an attack occurs before the Games, and will return home in the event of a “significant” attack during the Games.

Everyone stop and take a deep breath.  Think.

Yes, there are terrorists in southern Russia, who want to establish their own Islamic state (the “Caucasus Emirate”).  Yes, there have been ongoing conflicts in Chechnya and Dagestan – Russia’s southern regions – since the 1990s.  Yes, terrorists have made noises about attacking the Games.  The threat is undeniably real, and Russia is responding with tens of thousands of security personnel, manhunts for known terrorists, and billions of dollars spent on security.

But why give the terrorists the victory they crave?  Why let them shut down the Games?

In practical terms, the decision to make is simply “go and play” or “don’t go at all.”  Let’s look at the risks – they’re not as big as they appear.

I’m not going to try to guess how likely an attack will be.  There are indicators of attack planning; there are ample security measures in place.  Either the attackers will be discouraged and do nothing, or they will make one or more attempts; if they make attempts, they will be prevented or they won’t.  If they are successful, the attack could range anywhere from the small scale to the truly spectacular.  Okay – let’s worst-case it and say they are going to succeed in a spectacular 9/11-scale attack.  What happens to you if you are there?

You will either be one of the unlucky few – yes, few – hit by the attack, or you will be one of the vast majority not hit by the attack.

Consider:  9/11 was a pretty friggin’ major terrorist attack, and yes – about 2600 people died in Manhattan’s World Trade Center and  125 died in the Pentagon.  Those numbers are not trivial, least of all to the loved ones of the victims; but step back and look at the larger picture.  There were an estimated 10,000-14,000 people in the two World Trade Center towers at the time of impact.  This means that if you were in the towers, or were a first responder who went into the buildings, you still had about a 74%-82% chance of survival.  It is significant that there was a 99% survival rate for those who were below the level of the impacts.  The Pentagon had a similar result:  of the roughly 800 who were in the path of the attack, 125 died – an 84.4% survival rate.  The building at the time housed some 25,000 workers overall, so if you were in the Pentagon on the day of the attack, you had a 99.5% chance of survival.

So your odds of dying in the vicinity of a terrorist attack are pretty slim.  If you have the bad luck to be at the actual point of attack – usually a pretty limited, concentrated area – your odds are still not bad, all things considered.

But maybe it’s not an explosive sort of attack.  Visions of the 1972 Munich Olympics must come to mind, when a Palestinian group took Israeli athletes hostage and murdered them.  I have to point out that 1974 Munich is a far, far cry from 2014 Sochi.  The Germans in 1974, dogged by their relatively recent militaristic Nazi past and Hitler’s propagandization of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, had over-compensated with excessive “openness” – and very lax security which was criticized even before the attack.  They were simply not prepared. Russia is quite the opposite.

Despite the disastrous handling of the 1972 hostage crisis and a temporary suspension of the Games, Germany opted to continue the Games; Israel agreed.  Decades later, Olympian Ian Millar, who competed in 1972, told the Daily Mail that it was the right decision:  “There was no choice but to go on.  It would have handed victory to the terrorists.”

Indeed, why leave after an attack has occurred?  The more spectacular the attack, the more likely the terrorists are spent, and the threat in the immediate aftermath should actually be lower.  Even if there is some indication of a series of less-spectacular attacks, the threat would almost certainly not be higher than it was before; nothing has really changed, except what is in our minds: fear.

And that’s what they want.  Don’t give it to them.

*Being able to use the US military resources is another matter entirely, since Russia is unlikely to allow foreign forces onto its soil, even just for an evacuation.