Sochi 2014: Security concerns a reality for U.S. Olympians and their families

The United States will send the largest delegation of athletes from any single country in the history of the Winter Olympics to Sochi, a team 230 strong that includes 13 gold medal winners.

And to one degree or another, the 105 women and 125 men will carry with them concern for their personal safety and that of loved ones who will make the round-the-globe trek to cheer them on.

“Obviously I keep up with the news. I’m very aware of the security threats,” said two-time U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner, 22, of Alexandria, whose parents also will travel to Sochi for her Olympic debut. “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?”

Concern about potential attacks on the Winter Games, which will run from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23, has heightened in the wake of three suicide bombings since Oct. 15 that killed more than 30 people in the city of Volgograd, roughly 500 miles from Sochi. Earlier this month reports emerged about the possible presence of female “black widow” suicide bombers in Sochi, though the reports, which U.S. officials learned of through the media, have not been corroborated.

The 2014 Olympics are being held within 300 miles of Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region, a center of Islamist extremist activity, where insurgents have threatened attacks on the Games for years.

Last week the U.S. Olympic Committee sent a travel memo to athletes cautioning against wearing conspicuous Team USA gear outside the secure Olympic compound because it “may put your personal safety at greater risk.”

During a State Department background briefing for reporters last Friday, a senior administration official affirmed the wisdom behind that suggestion.

“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 the — or far outside of the venues,” the official said.

Mark Caldwell said he and his wife are determined to go to Sochi to watch their daughter Ashley compete in aerials, adding that he felt security concerns have been overblown.

“I’ve stood at the top of the Deer Valley aerials hill and looked down on the 60-foot jump into space without any landing in site,” said Caldwell, who lives in Houston. “My daughter [confronts] that fear daily, repeatedly. Of course we are concerned about the terror prospects in Sochi, but the Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime event. And for us, twice now.

“Not that the threat isn’t real or that we won’t be very cautious in Sochi. But we think that the media hype is in overdrive on this story. It’s unfortunate that any story would overshadow the work and sacrifice that all of the athletes have endured to reach this pinnacle of sport.”

Fred Evans, whose daughter, Aja, is among the U.S. medal hopefuls in bobsled with teammate Elana Meyers, struck a more anxious tone. He’s not making the trip to Sochi, preferring to host a viewing party at his Chicago area home. But his daughter will be cheered on in Russia by other members of the Evans family, and her father has been keeping a close watch on State Department travel alerts on their behalf.

“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 said. “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.”’

Bobsled driver Steven Holcomb, who won gold at the Vancouver Games, did a paid appearance in December solely to raise money so he could fly his mother to Sochi for the Olympics. But by the end of December, he sat down his mom. They talked about the challenges, risks and security concerns and ultimately opted against the trip.

Holcomb’s agent, Brant Feldman, said he’s among many Olympic attendees who will be signing up for services from Global Rescue, a Boston-based security company that provides medical assistance and emergency response and evacuation. It’s the same service that has contracted for these Olympics with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun has stressed that the safety and security of U.S. athletes was the organization’s top priority.

“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,” Blackmun said in a statement.

A father of one Olympian who declined to be identified for fear it would imperil his daughter said he had concerns about whether the athletes were being given timely information about security threats.

“A lot of bad things have happened to Americans overseas, whether in the State Department or the military, because things weren’t done properly,” the father said. “You only have to look as far as Benghazi to see where well-intentioned people were asleep at the switch, and it had catastrophic consequences.”

Last week the State Department updated its travel alert for Sochi, geared toward the roughly 10,000 U.S. citizens expected to attend the Olympics, noting that such large-scale events presented attractive targets for terrorists. Experts believe that “soft” targets, such as train and bus stations, hotels and tourists sites, are more appealing to terrorists than Olympic venues.

State Department officials have made clear they’re taking all threats seriously and anticipate more in the run-up to the Feb. 7 Opening Ceremonies.

While Russian security services are taking the lead in safeguarding the Winter Games, the United States is sending enough diplomatic security agents to accompany each of its Olympic teams to and from venues in and around Sochi.

Rick Maese contributed to this story.

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