Sochi: Olympic Athletes Worried About Safety Week Before Games
With a little more than a week before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, many U.S. athletes are concerned not only about how they'll fare in the games but whether they'll be safe following terrorist attacks, including December bombings that killed more than 30 people in nearby Volgograd.
International Olympic Committee board member Anita DeFrantz, the lone U.S. representative, tells The Wall Street Journal that athletes have been asking her every week if they'll be safe. But no athletes have said they won't go to the Olympics due to safety concerns, the U.S. Olympic Committee tells the WSJ.
DeFrantz has been telling the athletes they'll be fine but to remain aware of their surroundings, "just like whenever you go to a place where you haven't lived or grown up."
DeFrantz also thinks Russia has been doing plenty to secure the Games, telling the WSJ, "The Russians have been doing whatever they have been doing in the Caucasus Mountains for a while now, and they know about the security issues there."
Indeed, Russia is providing some of the most extensive security in history in Sochi, with more than 50,000 police and soldiers, according to the Associated Press, including restricting access to sensitive areas and putting officers on "combat alert." The U.S. also reportedly plans to have two warships in the Black Sea in case of a terrorist attack.
U.S. officials have warned athletes not to display team colors too prominently and advised them not to wear Team USA gear outside of Olympic venues.
U.S. hockey forward Jocelyne Lamoureux said she's tuning out news reports about security issues to focus on the competition.
Two-time U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner, making her Olympic debut in Sochi, said she's aware of the security threats but is telling herself that officials are doing all they can to ensure she's safe.
"Obviously I keep up with the news. I'm very aware of the security threats," Wagner told the Washington Post. "At the same time, I have to tell myself that the USOC and the Russian Olympic Committee are doing everything they can. We want this Olympics to go smoothly; I know they absolutely want this Olympics to go smoothly. Really, what can you do other than believe in the people put in charge to take care of you?"
But while Wagner's parents are planning to attend the Olympics, Fred Evans, whose daughter Aja is on the U.S. bobsled team, isn't making the trip and is concerned about the safety of his daughter and her fellow athletes.
"There's a reality that there are people who don't like you, who are willing to die to prove that. That's a truly terrifying thought," Evans told the Post. "What I like is the fact that there's coverage of this. What I like is the advice people are getting. What I don't like is that it could be a reality. We are nervous and we're prayerful. And we hope that they all come home safely."
But U.S. athletes aren't the only Olympians concerned about security in Sochi.
Dutch national long-track speed skating coach Gerard Kemkers, when asked by the Journal if he was nervous about potential security threats in Sochi, said: "If I give you an honest answer, I would say yes. But I don't have a choice. I've got to go there for my job. I've got a job to do. We've got to try to win as [many] gold medals as we can."
In addition to the recent bombings in Volgograd, reports emerged earlier this month about the possible presence of suicide bombers in Sochi.
Meanwhile, the NHL is closely monitoring the situation in Russia and open to the possibility that a security issue could keep players from going to the Games.
"As of now, we do not doubt that all necessary steps are being taken by the Sochi Organizing Committee, the Russian government and the IOC to ensure the safety of the athletes and guests in Sochi," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote Monday in an email to the AP.
"Obviously, if something significant were to transpire between now and Feb. 9 that causes us to question that conclusion, we will re-evaluate. I don't expect that that will become necessary."
The NHL also has not decided whether to let its players participate in the Olympics beyond this year amid concerns that suspending league play for more than two weeks in the middle of the season is bad for business, particularly when the Olympics aren't in the U.S. or Canada. This year 150 NHL players, with at least one player representing each of the 12 countries competing in hockey, were selected to go to the Olympics.
"The North American experiences have been better than far-away Olympics for a host of reasons, including exposure," Daly told the AP. "When you have a North American-based Olympics, you can have a shorter period without NHL games. We're going to have the longest break we've ever had, and that could interrupt momentum for teams and have an affect on their competitiveness based on how many players they have playing, and how many injuries they have in Sochi."