Only 10 days ago, the biggest news about the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was about the stockpiling of snow for skiing and snowboarding venues in the Caucasus Mountains.
The Boston Marathon bombings, allegedly carried out by two ethnic Chechen brothers, have changed that.
It’s still not clear why Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev allegedly attacked American civilians. Chechen separatists and their allies in the North Caucasus have denied involvement in the bombing, saying last week that they are “not fighting with the United States.” But there’s no question that they are fighting with Russia—and that the Sochi Games could be a prime target for terrorist attacks. Sochi lies just west of the turbulent North Caucasus, home to a Muslim insurgency fueled by years of warfare between Russia and Chechen nationalists.
Could the mayhem in Boston now scare corporate sponsors and visitors away from the Sochi Games. They are the first Olympics in Russia since 1980 and are being promoted by the Kremlin as an emblem of 21st century Russian wealth and power?
Probably not, says Daniel Ritterband, who oversaw marketing for the 2012 London Olympics—mainly because key sponsorship deals are already “sewed up.” Multinationals such as Coca-Cola (KO) and McDonald’s (MCD) have long-term partnership agreements with the International Olympic Committee, he says, and most companies signing one-time contracts for the Sochi games will be Russian. “Politically, they’ve been told by Moscow that they have to sponsor certain elements of the Games.”
Even before the Boston attacks, few global brands were seeking a major presence at the Sochi Games, says Ritterband, now a London-based branding consultant. Some luxury goods companies eager to court super-rich Russians will be there, he says, but Russia won’t attract the hordes of companies that sponsored the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in hopes of raising their profiles with Chinese consumers. “I don’t believe Russia is a key market that many people are desperate to crack,” he says.
As for visitors, winter Olympics attract far smaller crowds than summer games do. Ritterband says he expects a large percentage of the Sochi crowds to be Russians, who may be more nonchalant than foreigners about security risks in their home country. Calls by Bloomberg Businessweek on Monday to the press service of the Sochi Games were not immediately returned.
What’s more, the Kremlin “will pull all the stops out” to prevent an attack, says Will Geddes, managing director of International Corporate Protection, a threat-management consultancy based in London. “There’ll be a very visual, physical presence” by military forces, as well as behind-the-scenes work by Russian security services, he says.
Russia said it removed one potential threat last May, when it arrested three suspected rebels and seized a cache of weapons during a raid in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia that borders Sochi. Russian officials said the weapons were to be used for “terror acts” at the Sochi Games in a plot they said was masterminded by Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader.
Umarov took credit for suicide bombings in Moscow in 2010 and 2011 that claimed 77 lives. Chechen sympathizers also carried out the deadliest terrorist attack in recent Russian history, a 2004 siege at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, that killed 350 people.
The Chechen separatist movement is “a very well-armed, well-resourced and capable opponent,” Geddes says. But President Vladimir Putin “will insure that every measure imaginable can be applied to protect those Games and to protect the reputation of Russia.”