Halfway through the Sochi Olympics, there have been a few hiccups.  A snowflake didn’t turn into an Olympic ring during the opening ceremonies.  And the full complement of mountain snow ordered up by Putin wasn’t fully delivered.

That’s surprising, given the $50 billion price tag for the 2014 Winter Olympics – four times more than the Russian President’s original proposed price and an astronomical figure that suggests this year’s event could cost more than all prior winter Olympics – combined. That’s a terrible rate of return on systemic corruption, even by Russian standards.

What Matters Most is Security

From our perspective at Hillard Heintze, what matters most is the safety and security of everyone at the Games.  We did not contribute to the planning of this event, but it’s hard not to watch them with some level of concern.  Call it professional jitters, if you will.  At heart, it’s just instinct.  Very few of us can walk through any major U.S. or international airport now without being on high alert.  We hide it well. I think.  But our families know.

Planning is Crucial

Scenario planning for major security events like the Olympics is so vital that those in charge of it have to be comfortable – and sufficiently emotionally removed from this effort – to think in a non-conforming way.  Out of the box.  And sometimes yes: like a terrorist.

An Uncomfortable Example

I can’t help recalling the 1972 Munich Olympics.  We’ve certainly had plenty of national and international terrorist events in recent years – such as 9/11 – to draw lessons from.  But sometimes we remember the event and its trauma far longer than we remember the technical lessons learned at the cost of lives.

What Happened in Munich

Let me take you back.  In an attempt to move out of the shadow cast by the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Germany tried to portray the Munich Olympics as “the Carefree Games” – no military presence, no barbed wire.  But it wasn’t going to completely discount the need to prepare for security incidents.  The West German Olympic organizers called on Dr. Georg Sieber, a police psychologist, to create a tabletop exercise for the games. After conducting extensive research on organizations ranging from the Irish Republican Army to the Palestine Liberation Organization to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Dr. Sieber developed 26 scenarios – mostly focusing on the Olympic Village.

Situation #21: The Crystal Ball Was Right

One such scenario, Situation #21, focused on a dozen armed Palestinians, specifically the terrorist organization Black September, taking the Israeli delegation hostage and in exchange for freeing them, asking for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Unfortunately, the organizers disregarded these scenarios and requested that Dr. Sieber replace them with new, less frightening ones.  Germany had been criticized during an Olympics test event in 1971 for merely having police officers with German shepherds at Dante Stadium – journalists said that the German organizers were being insensitive to the fact that the former Dachau concentration camp was a short 12 miles away.  In a reaction to the criticism, the organizers decided to have security guards blend into the crowd during the games, armed with nothing but walkie-talkies.

A Sad Outcome

On September 5th, Dr. Sieber’s scenario proved to be nearly exactly accurate – occurring just 50 minutes earlier than he had planned.  Eight members of Black September gained access to the Israelis’ apartment.  They killed two weightlifters and took nine other athletes, coaches and judges hostage.  In the end, all 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed.

Sunshine, Snow and Medals

I had to take you there.  Now come back to the snowflakes and snow with me.  And the medals.  We have confidence in Russia’s ability to keep the Games safe.  Our athletes – and those of all other nations –will come home, some in triumph and others in defeat.  And our Russian friends and colleagues will have the right to be proud.   The Sochi Olympics will be a success. But don’t confuse the issues.  If your job is to protect people – the world’s best athletes and their families, global leaders in attendance, event staff, members of the media and thousands of vendors – don’t underestimate a terrorist’s creativity.  And if your job is to put on a world-class Winter Olympics event, pop the budget up a bit and get some more snow.