Joel Reichenberger: In security and English, Sochi is trying

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2014 Winter Olympics

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— The first time I met Alex, the security guard posted at the door of our condo building, we exchanged names and a handshake, and as I walked away he hollered, calling me back.

Very slowly, very deliberately, he added one final thing: “Hello. Good. Luck!”

That’s a very typical experience for the English-speaking efforts of the many workers and volunteers for the Sochi Olympics, as well as the ever-present security effort that factors in some small way into our every day.

Talking to the workers in English feels a little like talking to a computer.

You need to go slow, and it’s best to focus on one or two key words as it’s apparent that’s all they’ve learned.

It’s neat the degree to which they try. All 25,000 volunteers seems to have at least rudimentary English, but it’s difficult to have a real conversation. Most responses seem almost preprogrammed.

That’s no sin, of course. How do you teach a huge group of people English? You stick to what they’ll need to know, and maybe you add in a flourish, such as “You, too,” or of course, “Good luck!”

The result is an appreciation from journalists and tourists, who are thankful for the effort and at least the hint of understanding.

Alex is typical of that. He has the basic greetings and a few questions down well, but dig deeper and you hit a wall. He’s also typical of the security apparatus.

Security in Russia doesn’t seem any better than in the United States. Mostly, it just seems different.

Every building has a security guard and every public building has a medal detector. It’s not like an airport, though, with clean sections deliberately cordoned off from unchecked areas. We entered a restaurant through an unlocked door several nights ago that allowed us to walk right around the metal detector, though the guard on duty tracked us down and asked us to go through.

You have to go through a metal detector to get into the newly completed — as of Saturday — shopping mall in the mountain cluster headquarters town of Krasnaya Polyana. The “clean zone” — if not fire safety — was kept up by locked doors at some of the entrances without security, though an entrance and exit through a room filled with ATMs was unguarded.

Some of the only truly airport-level security I’ve encountered is at the media centers, the huge one in Sochi itself, and the smaller version down the road from our condo in Krasnaya Polyana.

That’s a full on “empty your pockets” experience with an X-ray machine for bags, a special sensor test for your bottle of water and a wand search if you forget to take off your belt.

The venues are well protected, too, and not just by the assault rifle-carrying military watching from along the roads and around the area. You must pass through a metal detector and your luggage through an X-ray to get into the bus station that leads to the venues and the buses are checked several times on the way. Guards check underneath with mirrors and, on a media bus, we were all scanned when we departed and all scanned when we arrived, ensuring there were no hop-ons during the journey. The door for every “secure” bus is tagged with a seal, so it can’t be opened without the seal being broken.

Does it make you feel safe? Sure, to some degree.

The loopholes in the system are interesting. Consider the airports. I violated several airport rules without realizing it when we prepared to fly from Moscow to Sochi. My carry-on bags were dramatically too heavy and I had bathroom liquids — contact solution, shampoo and shaving cream — when apparently none are allowed on domestic Russian flights.

I wasn’t entirely aware what was to be done about this, and neither were the Russians on the other side of the conversation. The language barrier won out on both issues, and in the end they smiled and sent me on my way.

It’s hard to imagine the TSA being so lenient. Then again, maybe my boyish charms have been an asset. Maybe they read me as a wide-eyed reporter from thousands of miles away, and not a terrorist from across the mountains, and in that, decided I wasn’t worth hassling.

It’s hard to say, though I haven’t heard anyone complain about any of the checkpoints so far, so a little more hassle wouldn’t turn us off..

Either way, it’s always nice when Alex searches deep into his shallow English and offers a cheery, “Good luck,” whether it makes sense at the moment or not.

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