Shivers ahead of Sochi

Winter Olympics

Shivers ahead of Sochi

Terrorist threats are making the athletes uneasy ahead of the bash

Athletes and their families are becoming increasingly anxious about possible terrorist attacks at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, so much so that some families have decided not to attend at all and others plan to curtail their activities once they get to the games in Russia.

No athletes have yet cancelled plans to compete because of terrorist threats. But with increasing talk about unrest in the region and threats from would-be suicide bombers, some family members say they are reconsidering long-held plans to support the athletes at the games.

“It’s getting to the point where our lives are on the line if we go there,” said Tim Oshie, whose son, TJ, is on the US hockey team. “They’re talking about terrorising families. I’d rather stay in the homeland.”

In the most recent in a series of unnerving incidents, the Olympic teams from the United States and some European countries received emails earlier this week warning them that they would be attacked if they took part in the games. The messages were determined to be hoaxes, but the episode added to the skittishness that is permeating the mood as the February 7 opening ceremony approaches. Members of Congress have recently expressed concern about the safety of the 10,000 or so Americans planning to travel to Sochi.

“We’re all thinking the atmosphere is not going to be super easygoing when we get there,” said Julia Mancuso, a three-time Olympic medalist in skiing who is competing in Sochi. 

Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the US Olympic Committee refused to answer questions about whether athletes and their families had expressed concern to Olympic officials, what kind of guidance the organisation was giving athletes regarding security and whether any special security measures would be provided in Sochi. In a statement this week, Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s chief executive, said, “As is always the case, we are working with the US Department of State, the local organisers and the relevant law enforcement agencies in an effort to ensure that our delegation and other Americans travelling to Sochi are safe.”

This month, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans planning to go to Sochi that terrorists had threatened to attack the Winter Games and urging them to “remain vigilant.” The Obama administration then sought to quell fears, saying that it had adequate plans in place to protect the security of athletes, sponsors and American visitors to the games. “We’ve been working long and hard to liaise with the Russian security forces,” a senior administration official said.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has staked his international reputation on the success of the games and for whom a terrorist attack would be as much a personal as a political blow, said recently that Russia would “do our best” to keep Sochi secure. In addition to forming a so-called Ring of Steel — a special security cordon for people and vehicles — in the area around Sochi, Russia plans to deploy a security force of 40,000 people and set up six anti-missile defence systems, among other measures.

“We have a perfect understanding of the scope of the threat and how to deal with it and how to prevent it,” Putin said in a television interview this month. “We will protect our air and sea space as well as the mountain cluster.”

But the last few months have revealed the difficulties in defending against terrorism. Suicide bombers have struck Volgograd, an industrial city about 400 miles north of Sochi, three times since the fall — once in October and twice within the space of 24 hours at the end of December, killing at least 34 people and injuring dozens.

A Pentagon official said recently that the United States would station two Navy warships in the Black Sea, next to Sochi, in case any Americans needed to be evacuated after a terrorist attack or other emergency.

Senior US officials have said in interviews in recent weeks that they are more concerned about these games than they have been for any since the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. For those games, US officials were fearful that terrorists groups like al-Qaida in Pakistan  and an indigenous Greek terrorist group would exploit the country’s weak internal security. Unlike the Russians, the Greeks were far more receptive to help from US law enforcement and intelligence officials, who ultimately played a significant role in the security for the games.

There is no question that people are nervous. Greg Bretz, an American snowboarder, said he considered hiring a bodyguard to protect his father, Greg, and his father’s girlfriend, who are both travelling to Sochi.

The elder Bretz declined, saying: “My thought is, they’re not just sniper shooting. If they’re going to do anything, they’re going to blow everything up.”

American hockey player Dustin Brown played in the 2010 Vancouver Games for the United States, so his family, which went to those Olympics, had already planned to stay home this time because of the distance and the expense. “Anybody who’s not concerned is probably lying,” he said about Sochi, adding, “I think it’s fair to say there’s some concern there.”

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