When two great bureaucracies merge
As one who had already experienced both the Olympic Games and the city of Moscow separately, I had a pretty good idea of what to anticipate when two such bureaucratic nightmares were superimposed upon each other this summer.
The Orwellian atmosphere, the frustrating delays, the tight security checks, the military presence -- all of these were foregone conclusions. Many of them exist to some degree at any Olympics, and of course they were going to be exaggerated in a traditionally secretive and suspicious nation suddenly deluged with the greatest peacetime influx of foreigners in its history.
It was clear ever since the games were awarded to Moscow in 1974 that this was how it was going to be, so it's a bit late to be surprised about it now. Still, the Soviet system does take some getting used to -- even by one who has been here before. Each trip has its own fascinating little brushes with Big Brother, and my 1980 lesson began about 2 1/2 weeks ago when I first realized that this visit wasn't going to be quite as easy as either of its predecessors.
Like many other US journalists, I had gone through the usual formalities of applying for accreditation. But early in July the Soviet organizers accepted some of us (apparently at random) and rejected the rest, claiming that their applications hadn't arrived in time. A week of banging on the doors in Moscow and Washington finally produced the necessary documents, and I was able to fly here exactly one week later than originally planned. Hardly a satisfactory solution, but in view of the number of writers still waiting, I suppose I should be thankful to be here at all.
The first culture shock greeting Western visitors to moscow even in ordinary times is the military presence -- and these are no ordinary times. It's soldiers, soldiers everywhere -- starting the moment you stepp off the plane and continuing throughout the duration of your stay.
Security in the customs area was much stricter, too, than I had found it before. First they scrutinized my passport as though they were reading the Dead Sea Scrolls, checking my picture against my face several times, then they detained me 20 minutes or so while holding a long conference over the fact that my visa and Olympic accreditation card read "Larry," while by passport "Lawrence." Then at customs, where I had been given special treatment and whisked right through on both previous arrivals, I had every one of my bags opened and subjected to an all-out search by a couple of uniformed types who must have seen too many James Bond movies.
I finally got the green light, but that wasn't all.I had to go through the same thing all over again upon entering the Hotel Rossiya, where the press is being housed.
Is it just stepped-up security because of the Olympics, or is some of it directed especially at Americans because of the US boycott? Some have speculated in the latter direction, but it's hard to know, really. Even so celebrated an athlete as Sebastian Coe, for instance, had problems. The British world record holder in the 800 and 1,500 meters lost a suitcase containing his training equipment (he eventually got it back), then had his party detained because his father's accreditation read "Percy" instead of "Peter."
Certainly once your're out of the airport there's no question of nationality: All journalists here are subjected to the tightest security by far at any Olympics I've covered since 1972, and undoubtedly the tightest ever. Every time you enter the press center, the hotel, or the Olympic village, a guard looks at the picture on your card as if he were studying a Rembrandt, then checks to make sure it matches your features (a far cry from the looser arrangements at some previous sites, where I have seen people get into restricted areas wearing borrowed ID cards sometimes even belonging to friends of the opposite sex). Somehow I don't think that would work here -- and I also wouldn't want to be the person trying it.
Airport-type security stations are also set up at all of these sites, complete with metal detectors and X-ray machines, and still they frequently search briefcases, carrying bags, and the like. Even when you leave these places, although they dispense with the airport routine, somebody still pores over that ID card to make sure it's really you.
All of this is mostly just a nuisance, though, and once you turn your attention to the overall situation it cannot be denied that the facilities and services here are far superior to those offered at many previous Olympic sites.
People wondered, for instance, how the food would be in this land not exactly famous in the West for its cuisine. Well, the answer is that it is uniformly good to excellent in the many special cafeterias and restaurants set up for athletes, officials, and journalists.Of course we realize that this isn't the daily fare of your average Soviet citizen, but for the official Olympic party Moscow comes off very favorably indeed when compared with its predecessors in the culinary department.
The competition sites are first class, while the spacious and modern Olympic village, built on a large tract on the outskirts of the city, is all that the athletes could ask for. And the hotel accomodations for journalists in the huge , relatively modern Rossiya are in totally different league from anything provided at Innsbruck or Montreal in 1976 or at Lake Placid last winter.
To be sure, all this VIP treatment creates a "bubble" (as one British journalist put it), in which the official party is isolated from the harsh realities of Soviet life.But that's always the case at the Olympics, and if the discrepancy between this particular "bubble" and the real world is greater than usual, well, that's the Soviet Union.