Families of Washington state Olympians say security concerns swirling around next month’s Sochi Winter Olympics haven’t changed their plans to attend the Games in a troubled region of Russia.
But some say apprehension about security and logistics prevented them from booking trips to the Games in the first place — a decision that seems more prudent by the day as fears over potential terror threats skyrocket.
Local athletes set to compete in Sochi are all experienced international travelers who say that, while they’re intensely aware of direct threats to the Games by domestic Russian terror groups, they remain confident security forces will deliver a safe Olympics.
“It is in a crazy part of the world, and we are a little bit concerned,” said two-time Olympic moguls skier Patrick Deneen, of Cle Elum. “You’re basically in the Middle East right there. It is a big target. But that being said, I have faith in the Russian government. I feel like everything’s going to be safe, especially on the athletes’ side.”
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Still, as the Feb. 7 opening ceremony approaches, Deneen and other athletes do worry about their family members.
“I’m a little bit nervous for my mom,” who is traveling just to attend Deneen’s event, he said. “But I think everything’s going to go well.”
Nancy Deneen, Pat’s mother, said a recent briefing by U.S. Ski Team officials in Deer Valley, Utah, helped ease fears about security to some extent.
“We’re going to be pretty protected, security will be pretty high,” she said, adding that there is some comfort in attending a remote, mountain venue without a huge number of spectators.
Methow Valley cross-country skier Sadie Bjornsen, a first-time Olympian, said she and her brother, fellow Sochi competitor Erik, long ago considered the situation — Sochi’s remote location, coupled with the security challenges — and urged their parents, Tom and Mary, to stay home. Instead, the siblings will help arrange for their parents, who are not experienced travelers, to watch them compete internationally at another event in Italy.
“They’ve never left North America yet,” Sadie Bjornsen said. “Sochi would not be the place to start.”
She said she is somewhat concerned about safety but believes the venues will be safe. She laments the fact that even if the Games come off without incident, security fears likely will keep many spectators away.
“It’s too bad,” she said. “There should be more of a feeling of acceptance and openness.”
Recent overt threats to the Games by Islamic terrorist groups — combined with reports of massive corruption and concerns about the Russian Olympic effort as a whole — have created substantial political blowback for the International Olympic Committee for choosing Sochi as a host.
Concerns about security, and the potential cost of hosting a Games in such a remote location, were broadly expressed seven years ago, when Russian President Vladimir Putin personally charmed the IOC selection committee into awarding the Games to Russia in the sparsely developed Black Sea resort community.
Those doubts have grown in recent months, causing U.S. officials to issue unprecedented warnings about safety during the Games. Terror threats to the Olympics are hardly new, but the recent, deadly success of suicide bombers in the host country puts Sochi in a category by itself.
In 2013 alone, terror attacks in the troubled Caucasus region caused 375 deaths, The Washington Post reported. Caches of heavy weapons and bombs believed to be in reserve for an Olympic attack were discovered 24 miles from Sochi in 2012.
Calls to cancel or move the Games have been met only by expressions of confidence by the IOC, which is keenly aware of Russia’s financial investment, estimated at $50 billion — more than all previous Winter Games combined. So the Sochi Games will go on, with military leaders from the U.S. and other nations assembling a response plan that likely will dwarf previous efforts.
An overt-security presence was seen as a necessary evil at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, which took place five months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. U.S. measures to protect Americans at subsequent Olympics in other countries have been substantial, but always subtle. For example, the U.S. military responded to fears about Greek domestic terror at the 2004 Athens Summer Games with a range of military-evacuation options — but leaders were careful to couch it as a NATO-controlled effort.
Last week’s detailed, high-profile Pentagon announcement that a U.S. Navy strike force would be available to respond to Sochi from the Black Sea was unprecedented for an Olympics, as was a State Department warning to Sochi-bound American travelers. “Wanted” posters for suspected Islamist terrorists have been posted in the area. No modern Olympics has approached its opening ceremony with such global trepidation over security.
Security experts have expressed mixed opinions about how real the threat will be in Sochi, where estimates place the number of armed security troops at roughly 60,000 — about 26 for each of the 2,300 competing athletes. But most agree that an attack or series of attacks elsewhere in Russia might be difficult to stop, and might be seen by terror groups as equally successful in drawing attention to their cause from the world’s media.
Such an attack in a nearby major transportation hub, such as Volgograd, about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, could paralyze the Games, experts say.
All of this means that some Olympians’ family members, such as Bobbie Jo Niccum, the wife of veteran luge slider Christian Niccum, of Woodinville, are relieved to be staying home.
“It’s difficult to get out there,” said Bobbie Jo, the mother of three young children. “For me to be going, I’d be nervous. And I wouldn’t really see him (Christian) anyway.”
But Christian, an experienced international competitor, says he feels completely safe.
Russians are not subtle about security measures, he said, and he expects to see plenty of tall fences and snipers around Athlete Villages.
“It’s Russia,” he said. “It’s going to be safe, for sure.”
Ron Judd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8280. On Twitter: @roncjudd.
Freelance Olympic writer Meri-Jo Borzilleri and the San Jose Mercury News contributed to this report.