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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Games in a Police State

About 7,500 participants in the Youth Games have been registered. This means some 20 policemen for ever athlete.

After watching the World Youth Games for the first few days here in Moscow, I have mixed feelings about the event, which has been trumpeted by some as unparalleled in the history of sport.

There is no question that bringing the world's top young athletes together not only to compete against one another, but to meet, make friends and improve relations on the planet for future generations is a nice idea.

But for some older people, like myself, the Games are reminiscent of the grand old Soviet tradition of propaganda movies.

For the entire week now, as during the 1980 Summer Olympics, the Russian capital has been surrounded by a huge number of policemen.

The police can be seen within reachable distance everywhere you turn -- inside or outside sports arenas, on streets and sidewalks, in the metro and even in parks.

An estimated 140,000 policemen, including Interior Ministry troops, OMON special forces, GAI traffic police and other police units, are patrolling the city streets day and night.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has tried to justify such a heavy police presence by saying that everything is being done for the sake of the kids' safety.

About 7,500 participants in the Games have been registered. This means some 20 policemen for every athlete.

The citizens of Moscow should ask their sports-loving mayor if he thinks this city really has so many bandits, rapists and other criminals that such a huge police force is needed to protect the young athletes?

So why turn back the clock 18 years, making the city a police state once again, even for a week? Are we mistaken in believing that Russia is a different country now and the communist regime is gone once and for all?

I don't know all the answers, but I was convinced of one thing during my visit last Saturday to the Luzhniki Stadium -- the Games' main sports arena and site of many major international competitions for the last 40-plus years. The stadium, which in the past the media and the public often criticized heavily for having a filthy street market on its premises, looked immaculately clean. It was good to see the freshly painted stadium on that sunny afternoon with vendors selling ice cream and other goodies.

The Youth Games had not officially begun, but the competition in some sports had already started. I decided to visit Luzhniki's Small Arena, the table tennis venue. Once inside, I was amused to see newly renovated bathrooms, clean toilets and a fully equipped press center with modern-day computers, international telephones and other amenities.

The only problem was that it was empty. Not a single journalistic soul was interested in making use of the center, which made available all kinds of information about the Games.

The same thing could be said about the playing arena. There were just a handful of fans, not including, of course, several hundred security people, watching junior ping-pong players, some as young as 11 or 12 years old, from two dozen countries, taking part in the team competition.

During this time, I saw a group of young people wandering around the Luzhniki gates, asking dozens of idle policemen permission to enter.

Of course their pleading with the policemen was to no avail. You need tickets to get in. But tickets are not sold anywhere near the arena. All the tickets, including those for the opening and closing ceremonies, have been distributed among various youth organizations, schools and summer camps.

Still, the attendance at many events has been sparse, at best. The streets outside the Luzhniki stadium that Saturday afternoon also looked deserted.

So, why stop those who want to come and watch from entering the playgrounds? When I asked Luzhniki press attache Sergei Borisov, who has seen it all during his long career and is not easy to surprise, he could only shrug his shoulders.

"Well, for the police it's as simple as this: If there are no people, there are no crimes committed," he said. "So the fewer the fans, the better it is for them."

While there were plenty of bright signs, banners and balloons, there were no people enjoying the festivities, no happy faces painted in various colors. There were only yawning policemen walking around. What a sharp contrast to the festive atmosphere we saw in Paris and in other French cities during the month-long World Cup.

Finally, the other big question is the cost of putting on the Games. The Moscow government spared no expense to stage the so-called Youth Olympics, including an unspecified amount on police overtime. But will other cities around the world follow Moscow's example and spend millions of dollars of taxpayers money?

Unlike the full-fledged Olympics, the Youth Games lack superstar luster and therefore cannot attract the mega-buck TV contracts needed to cover the costs.

And in today's world, where money decides everything, such an obstacle may seem too difficult to overcome.

But regardless of whether these first Youth Olympics will continue in the future -- and Luzhkov thinks they will -- one hopes that the thousands of kids who are competing here this week will take back home some lasting impressions of Moscow, despite the large police presence.

Gennady Fyodorov is on the staff of The Moscow Times sports page.