With less than six weeks before the Sochi Games, athletes around the globe are intensely focused on qualifying for the Olympics. But some are also keeping an eye on the terror threats in Russia.
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In the aftermath of two suicide bombings within 24 hours which killed at least 34 people in a southern Russia city, two-time gold medalist Seth Wescott doesn’t think he’ll attend Opening Ceremonies if he qualifies in snowboard cross.
“It definitely concerns me,” Wescott said Monday in his hometown, Carrabassett Valley, Maine. “I don’t want to be pessimistic about it. … I think you’re watching events start to happen. It’s a country that’s had massive amounts of internal strife that has manifested itself into actual combat. We’re not far away from where a lot of that has gone on in their country. It’s definitely a concern.”.
Even so, the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee didn’t express additional alarm after a suicide bomber on a bus early Monday in Volgograd killed at least 16 people and left nearly 30 wounded. A day earlier another suicide bombing killed at least 18 at a railway station in the city.
IOC president Thomas Bach said he is confident Russia will deliver “a safe and secure Games in Sochi.” The USOC said in a statement that safety is always a concern and “the Sochi Games are no different in that regard.”.
For Wescott, 37, these Games are different in a substantial way. They have become more about human rights violations and political unrest and less about sport and spectacle. “For me it’s become a different thing,” said Wescott, also outspoken in his opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws. “I’ve had the pinnacle experience of what you can have at the Olympics both times I’ve gone. There’s something about these Games. None of those questions were asked in Vancouver or Torino; it just seems like there’s a lot if negativity around these Games. That’s really unfortunate because It should be this global celebration.”.
Others such as figure skater Ross Miner, hoping to go to his first Olympics, said he isn’t concerned because security is such a priority for the IOC and host country. “I don’t worry given the history of the Olympics and the tragedy that occurred in Munich, the IOC takes this very seriously,” Miner said. He experienced the high-level measures this season competing at a World Cup event in Russia. “Everyone had to put everything through metal detectors, even the athletes,” he said.
Russia has pledged to spare no expense when it comes to security. With a $50 billion budget, the Sochi Olympics will be the most expensive in history and is preparing to host the “safest games ever,” according to Sochi organizing committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko.
“We should recognize the global threat is terrorism and terrorism has no boundaries,” Chernyshenko told USA TODAY Sports last month. “There’s no difference between Vancouver or London or wherever. During the Salt Lake Games, the security was on highest level after 9/11. I can tell you from the early stages, a constructive dialogue between the security agencies of Russia and USA was established. The authorities are in close cooperation, combining efforts to help Russia provide the safest games.”.
The attacks occurred in Volgograd, a major rail hub in southern Russia and a main transit point for people traveling by train to Sochi. Each day, thousands of people use the station in the city once called Stalingrad. It is about 400 miles northeast of Sochi.
The blasts are believed to be linked but no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, which came several months after Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov called for attacks against civilian targets in Russia. Umarov, leader of a terrorist group that calls itself the Caucasus Emirate, has called on Muslims to disrupt the Olympics.
The method and targets of the recent attacks, security analysts say, underscore the difficulty of detecting such plots before they are executed in well-traveled public places.
“It is so difficult to secure places like this, where literally thousands are converging every single day,” said Ray Mey, a former FBI counter-terrorism official who helped coordinate security for the Salt Lake and Turin, Italy Winter Games. “I suspect that (Russian officials) have all the people they know about under close watch.”.
Others going to Sochi have been too focused on the puck or the goal to notice terror threats. “I haven’t followed it closely enough just because I’ve been watching hockey instead of watching world news,” said Mike Babcock, who will coach Canada’s men’s hockey team. “Obviously, I have to get a little bit informed.
“You know, when anything like this goes on in the world, it’s saddening, because it’s hard to believe that intelligent people can’t find a better way to go about making the world a better place than that. Makes no sense to me.”.
Red Wing Jimmy Howard, expected to be one of three goalies on Team USA, said he was unaware of the events. His teammate, Johan Franzen of Sweden, added “bombs are scary, but I’m sure after this their security will be higher. I think they’re going to do everything they can to make it as safe as they can.”.
Contributing: Roxanna Scott, Kevin Johnson and Helene St. James.