No U.S. athletes have yet canceled plans to compete in Russia next month, but with talk focusing on unrest in the region and threats from would-be suicide bombers, visits are being shortened and travel itineraries reconsidered.
“It’s getting to the point where our lives are on the line if we go there,” said Tim Oshie, whose son, T.J., is on the U.S. men’s hockey team. “They’re talking about terrorizing families. I’d rather stay in the homeland.”
In the most recent in a series of unnerving incidents, the Olympic teams from the United States and some European countries received emails this week warning them that they would be attacked if they took part in the games. The messages were determined to be hoaxes, but the episode added to the skittishness that is permeating the mood as the Feb. 7 opening ceremony approaches.
Members of Congress have recently expressed concern about the safety of the 10,000 or so Americans planning to travel to Sochi.
“We’re all thinking the atmosphere is not going to be super-easy when we get there,” said Julia Mancuso, a three-time Olympic medalist in skiing who plans to compete in Sochi.
Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, declined Friday to answer questions about whether athletes and their families had expressed concern to officials, what kind of guidance the organization was giving athletes regarding security and whether any special security measures would be provided.
In a statement earlier this week, Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s chief executive, said: “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.”
Earlier this month, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans planning to go to Sochi that terrorists have threatened to attack the Winter Games and urging them to “remain vigilant.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his international reputation on the success of the Olympics and for whom an attack of any kind would be as much a personal as a political blow, said recently that the Russians would “do our best” to keep Sochi secure.
In addition to forming a so-called Ring of Steel — a special security cordon for people and vehicles — in the area around the city, Russia plans to deploy a security force of 40,000 people and set up six anti-missile defense systems, among other measures.
“We have a perfect understanding of the scope of the threat and how to deal with it and how to prevent it,” Putin said in a television interview earlier this month. “We will protect our air and sea space as well as the mountain cluster.”
But the last few months have revealed the difficulties in defending against terrorism. Suicide bombers have struck Volgograd, about 400 miles north of Sochi, three times since the fall, killing more than 35 people.
Senior U.S. officials have said in interviews that they are more concerned about these games than they have been for any since the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Back then, U.S. officials were fearful that terrorists groups from Pakistan and an indigenous Greek group would exploit the country’s weak internal security. Unlike the Russians, the Greeks were far more receptive to help from U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.
“This is unique among Olympics from a preparatory standpoint for us,” said Dan Richards, chief executive of Global Rescue, a company that provides crisis medical services. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association is one of its clients.
“The terrain works against you,” Richards said, referring to Sochi’s setting on the Black Sea and at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. “But it also makes some areas hard to attack.”
A Pentagon official said recently that the United States would station two Navy warships in the Black Sea, right next to Sochi, just in case.
There is no question that people are nervous. Greg Bretz, an American snowboarder, said he considered hiring a bodyguard to protect his father, Greg Sr., and his father’s girlfriend, who are both traveling to Sochi. They have refused up until now, he said.
Several family members of American athletes have said they plan to stay on cruise ships in the Black Sea that have been turned into floating Olympics accommodations. But there’s concern those could be targets, too.