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Athletes, families weigh risks amid Sochi security threats

By William Douglas and Lesley Clark McClatchy Foreign Staff (MCT) • Updated Jan 29, 2014 at 9:16 PM

SOCHI, Russia — Suicide bombings and terrorist threats aren’t going to keep Jasmine Campbell from participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics here next month.

Campbell, a 22-year-old giant slalom and slalom skier from Ketchum, Idaho, is pumped about carrying the flag of her native U.S. Virgin Islands into Fisht Olympic Stadium during the games’ opening ceremony.

But her jubilation is tinged with unease from about security surrounding the games, worries that are prompting some relatives of athletes to consider staying home or limiting their public activities at this city on the Black Sea during the Feb. 7-23 event.

About 10,000 Americans are expected to attend the games as spectators. But words of caution and concern from U.S. officials, athletes and their families could lower that number. No American athlete has pulled out of the games thus far because of security concerns. But some readily admit that they’re heading to Sochi with some trepidation.

“I have my reservations, to be sure,” Campbell said by phone after a day of training in Sun Valley, Idaho. “But I’m also trying not to focus on it because it’s not what the Olympics are about to me and I don’t want it to take away from my experience of what the Olympics should and does represent.”

Campbell’s father and coach, John, will accompany his daughter to Sochi. He applauds her determination to not let anything interfere with her participating in the games, but he also shares her worries about safety.

“There’s an uncertainty with respect to the fact that Chechnya is so close, there’s been some terrorist activity in the last week or two, and there are other concerns,” said John Campbell, who skied for the U.S. Virgin Islands at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. “But I don’t think they’re great enough to deter Jasmine’s Olympic dreams and aspirations. But there’s a little bit of anxiety there. You never know what the bad guys might do. You hope that they’ll be stymied by the security and professionalism of the organizers. But, yeah, there’s anxiety.”

Some athletes are telling relatives, who sweated and sacrificed along with them through their qualifying, to stay home. Nick Alvarez, older brother of Miami short track speedskater Eddy Alvarez and father of three young children, has decided not to go.

“It’s a tough call, but not worth the risk,” Nick said.

Downhill skier Erik Fisher of Boise, Idaho, told his mom not to go to the Olympics.

She insisted.

“I'm more worried about her than I am about myself,” Fisher said. “... She's worked just as hard as I have for me to make the Olympics, so I can't deny her the opportunity to come if she really wants to.”

Shelly Fisher is the only member of the family making the trip. Fisher's parents and two of his sisters made the much shorter trip to Vancouver in 2010. She will travel with downhill racer Steven Nyman's mother. Nyman is from Sundance, Utah, and the two skiers’ moms are longtime friends.

“It should be an adventure,” said Shelly, who leaves Wednesday and returns Feb. 18. “Unless I felt like it was just seriously dangerous, then of course I would not go. But I'm not too worried about it at this point. It would be really difficult for me to stay home.”

Women's hockey player Hilary Knight of Sun Valley, Idaho, usually worries "about everything," she said. But she's tried to remove safety concerns from her thoughts about the Olympics.

“I kind of leave the worrying up to my family,” she said. “I see the stuff on the news and it's terrible, but part of my job is to be able to separate it.”

Knight's parents and three brothers will make the trip to Russia. Her parents, Jim and Cynthia Knight, have discussed their concerns.

"For two weeks in February, probably one of the safest places on Earth is going to be in the athletes’ village," Jim said. “Outside the Olympic venues, I think there's reason to be concerned. It's a volatile area. The way Cynthia and I think about it is there may be an incident — there may be more than one incident — but the chance that you will be in that place at that time when it occurs, if it occurs, is pretty infinitesimal. You can't allow them to get the better of you. ... We're all there to support the athletes and support the Olympic movement. It's an exciting time for them and we owe it to the athletes to give them our support.”

And from the White House to Capitol Hill, elected officials are weighing in on whether American spectators should go to Sochi or stay home. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking on NBC’s “Today’’ show Wednesday, said he’d send his family to the Winter Olympics “with some caveats, to make sure they kept their eyes open, listen … register with the State Department and pay very much attention.”

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he thinks it’s too risky in Sochi for Americans to visit.

“If I were an athlete, I would go, I’m almost certain. But as a spectator, no, I would not,” King said recently on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” “Let’s say tomorrow, if my family and I were given free tickets, I would not go.”

But Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the current Homeland Security Committee chairman, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “If we do not support our team and show up, I think the terrorists are winning.”

“Having said that, I would say that the security threat to … this particular Olympics is the greatest I’ve ever seen,” he added.

Anxiety over potential trouble in Sochi grew last week when U.S. and European Olympic teams received emailed threats in Russian and English vowing strikes if athletes and supporters participate in the games Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed for to showcase the country’s re-emergence as a regional and world power under his leadership.

International Olympic Committee officials determined that the emails were hoaxes. But other potentially serious threats remain that could overshadow the athletic competitions and embarrass Putin.

Last month, suicide bombers attacked a crowded bus and a railroad station in Volgograd, a city about 400 miles north of Sochi, killing 32 people. Last July, Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader, released a video calling for an attack during the Winter Olympics.

More than 300 miles separate the main Olympic sites from Chechnya, the site of two civil wars, home of anti-Putin Islamic rebels, and the homeland of the family of the two Boston Marathon suspects.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans traveling to Sochi for the Winter Games of the terrorist threats.

Other security elements of the Obama administration and the Olympics movement also have chimed in. U.S. athletes have been told not to wear their red, white, and blue official Olympic uniforms outside accredited events in Sochi because of security concerns.

The U.S. Olympic team’s security coordinator issued the warning after the U.S. government observed what it considers an uptick in threats against the Winter Games, according to State Department officials.

“I think it’s just common sense that perhaps if you’re an American Olympic athlete, you perhaps don’t want to advertise that so much directly outside of — or far outside of — the venues,” a senior State Department official told reporters last Friday.


A Pentagon official said the Navy would anchor two warships in the Black Sea near Sochi in case Americans needed to be evacuated because of a terrorist attack.

Justin Faulk, a defenseman for the U.S. Olympic hockey team and the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, said he’s not worried about security in Sochi. But his mother, brother and another guest going to Russia to watch him play are “more worried about it than I am.”

“But they’re going to be pretty close too, about 10 minutes from us,” Faulk said. “I think it’s within the secure area. They’ll be OK, I think. They’re a little more worried, but they’re still coming. They thought about it for a day or two and decided to stick with their plans.”

Andrej Sekera, a Hurricanes defenseman who’s playing for Slovakia at the Winter Games, said concerns about security are “always going to be in your head, but there’s nothing you can prevent.”

“Some things are meant to happen, but hopefully nothing will happen,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the (Russian) government and all the countries that are sending Olympians out there will make sure everythting goes smoothly and nothing will happen.”

Sekera said he isn’t taking any family or friends to Sochi, but not because of security fears. Once in Sochi, Sekera said he plans to take in Olympic experience, and not just be sequestered.

“I will walk around the village, see the area,” he said. “I will try to go out and see as many things as I can because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

John Campbell, who moved his family from St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, to Idaho when his daughter was 9, hopes all the precautions being taken or suggested won’t be needed and that the spirit of the Olympics takes over.

“My guess is that it will be a happy gathering in Sochi,” he said. ``I remember from my (Olympic) experience being struck by the extent, and this may sound a little corny, but by the extent to which you really get this one world vibe, if you will.”


(Chip Alexander of the The News & Observer, Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman and Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.)


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