Olympic Fears Rattle Athletes and Families (NYT)
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 and others plan to curtail their activities once they get to the Games in Russia.
No American athletes have yet canceled 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, T. J., is on the United States hockey team. “They’re talking about terrorizing 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 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 Feb. 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 United States Olympic Committee, the organization responsible for the delegation of American athletes at the Games, refused on Friday to answer questions about whether athletes and their families had expressed concern to Olympic officials, what kind of guidance the organization was giving athletes regarding security and whether any special security measures would be provided in Sochi.
In a statement this week, Scott Blackmun, the U.S.O.C.’s chief executive, said, “As is always the case, we are working with the U.S. Department of State, the local organizers and the relevant law enforcement agencies in an effort to ensure that our delegation and other Americans traveling 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.” On Friday, the Obama administration 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 told reporters.
While “we’ve seen an uptick in security threats,” the official continued, such threats are “not unusual for a major international event like this.”
President Vladimir V. 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 missile-defense 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.
Last year, Doku Umarov, an insurgent leader in the violent Islamist movement in the North Caucasus, released a video over the Internet urging his followers to use “maximum force” to keep the Sochi Games from taking place “on the bones of our ancestors.” A group loyal to him has since claimed responsibility for the Volgograd bombings, but the authorities have not corroborated the claim.
While acknowledging the concerns, international and national Olympic officials have assured athletes in phone calls, emails and meetings that security is a top priority.
“It’s a subject that is brought up regularly without any particular anxiety,” Jean-Claude Killy, the leader of the International Olympic Committee’s commission overseeing Sochi, told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe this month. He said that the Volgograd attacks had served to “tighten the bolts” on the security around Sochi.
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.
By SARAH LYALL
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