For someone planning to bring his wife and 8-month-old son to the Olympic Games in Sochi next month, U.S. curling team skip John Shuster of Duluth sounded surprisingly confident about their security and safety in a part of the world that worries many experts, including those in the U.S. State Department.
Shuster’s parents are making the long trip, too — part of a 10-person contingent.
In a telephone interview last weekend from Las Vegas, where his team competed in the Continental Cup, Shuster said he and his family read last week’s state department travel advisory, which warned of possible terrorist threats targeting the Games. He also knew about the two suicide bombings in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), about 600 miles northeast of Sochi, in late December that reportedly killed 34 people.
Still, he said his level of concern is negligible.
“I feel very comfortable that the International Olympic Committee, the USOC and the Russian government are doing everything they can to assure our safety,” said Shuster, a three-time Olympian. “I actually feel pretty good about it.”
So does Gigi Marvin, the women’s hockey player from Warroad and the University of Minnesota. Last week, Marvin and her Olympic teammates sat through a briefing by the team’s nutritionist. She marveled at the detail and preparation, with multiple backup plans presented for any eventuality.
“To sit and hear that, that they care and put that much effort into food, it’s about 100 times more with security,” she said in a telephone interview from greater Boston, where the team is based. “That comforts my heart. I have no worry about where we’re going, because people have been planning and preparing.”
Even so, Marvin said only her parents are going this time after about a dozen relatives watched her in Vancouver.
Other athletes rethinking family plans
Although Shuster and Marvin seem comfortable with their decisions, other athletes with Minnesota connections — and their families — are rethinking their plans in light of changing conditions and recent news events. For example, two high-profile athletes — the Minnesota Wild’s Ryan Suter and Zach Parise — have decided not to have family members accompany them.
There are at least 26 athletes from Minnesota, or with Minnesota ties, who have qualified for Sochi, one of the larger contingents among U.S. states. The total includes Jessie Diggins of Afton, a medal contender in cross country skiing, as well as such University of Minnesota products as hockey-playing siblings Phil and Amanda Kessel. Fifteen of the 26 play men’s or women’s hockey.
Some have estimated as many as 15,000 U.S. visitors will attend the Olympics, which run from Feb. 7 to 23. Other travel industry officials, however, believe fewer Americans will travel to Sochi than any other post-World War II Olympics simply because it’s expensive and a hassle to get to.
A typical trip could involve two plane changes and take about 24 hours. Plus, Americans need to buy a Russian tourist visa. And as part of the heightened security, all ticket-holders must apply for a Spectator Pass, which requires a background check by the Russian Federal Security Service.
Sochi trouble nearby
But the biggest factor in decisions about making the long trip clearly concerns safety questions. Sochi isn’t Vancouver or Torino, established cities in safe, stable countries, and trouble isn’t far away.
A warm-weather resort city of about 350,000 on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, Sochi has been a favored summer vacation spot for Russians since the days of Stalin. With the mountains of the North Caucasus nearby, Russian President Vladimir Putin bid for the Olympics to try and turn Sochi into a year-round resort.
The Games come 150 years after the Russian Empire invaded the area, which was called Circassia, burning villages and exiling more than a million of its Islamic inhabitants to the Ottoman Empire. The North Caucasus is home to Islamic militants eager to establish an independent state and embarrass Putin.
Sunday, a YouTube video posted by the Islamic terrorist group Vilayat Dagestan and purportedly shot months ago showed two men claiming to be Volgograd suicide bombers. They threatened to give Putin and Sochi tourists “a present” for “the innocent Muslim blood being spilled all over the world” if the Games are held.
And last July, the Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, who claimed responsibility for multiple suicide attacks in Moscow that killed more than 100 people, directed his followers to disrupt the Sochi Games. Rumors of Umarov’s death at the hands of Russian forces circulated last weekend but have not been confirmed.
“No other Olympics has had the threat that comes anywhere close to the Sochi threat,” said William Rathburn, the former Dallas police chief who directed security at the 1996 Games in Atlanta and assisted in Los Angeles in 1984. “The threat is very, very high and very, very real, in my mind.”
How secure is ‘Ring of Steel’?
Host countries are responsible for Olympic security, and the Russians responded with an iron fist. Putin ordered a so-called “Ring of Steel” established around Sochi, 60 miles long and 25 miles wide, that no vehicles can enter without proper documentation. Patrolled by a 40,000-person mix of military, police, Cossacks and security forces, measures include drones overhead and sharpshooters in the mountains.
“We have adequate means available to us through the Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry, Armed Forces units that will be involved in providing security … on the water and in the air,” Putin said in an interview with foreign television journalists, according to a translation by ABC News.
But Rathburn said the Russians erred by announcing in advance that the perimeter would be in place on Jan. 7, giving potential terrorists time to establish themselves inside it. Already there are rumors of a female suicide bomber on the loose in Sochi, according to multiple media outlets. Not surprisingly, CNN’s Barbara Starr, quoting an unnamed U.S. official, reported Monday that the U.S. will put one or two warships and several transport aircraft on standby to evacuate Americans athletes and officials if necessary.
The two warships, according to the New York Times, would be stationed in the Black Sea as part of normal training exercises, and the transport planes would remain at their bases, probably in Europe, until needed.
On Tuesday, President Obama and Putin conferred on security concerns and “how best to have a ‘safe and secure’ Winter Olympics in Sochi, the White House said.
“If someone believes that they should devise their own personal security plans, there is nothing wrong with that,” Putin said. “However it must be done in contact with the Olympics organizers and with our security services.”
Rathburn believes athletes and spectators should be safe once inside Olympic venue security gates, where bags are searched and everyone, even IOC big shots, pass through metal detectors.
“I believe the Russians have studied other Olympic Games,” Rathburn said. “I think they know how to protect the Olympic sites.”
Less secure, he said, are what he calls “soft targets” — lines forming outside security gates; unsecured public gathering places; and transportation hubs like train stations.
“As they screen people through that outer perimeter, they’re vulnerable to the same kind of attack that occurred in Volgograd a couple of weeks ago,” Rathburn said. “The suicide bomber was in the queue to go through the metal detector at the train station.
“One of the things nobody talks about is, it takes tens of thousands of support staff to stage an Olympic Games. All of those people will have access to Olympic targets. That concerns me. Even if they did a good job in screening the people, could one of those people have been compromised and somehow represent a threat?”
Athletes, politicians, safety experts don’t agree
Most athletes aren’t worried, but at least one member of the Senate Intelligence Committee is. On CNN’s “State of the Union” last Sunday, Maine Sen. Angus King called this “a real challenge for the Russians,” adding he would not go to Sochi and probably wouldn’t send his family. “It’s just such a rich target in an area of the world,” he said. “[Terrorists] have almost broadcast they are going to try to do something there.”
Such fears shouldn’t deter travelers, Rathburn said. “Anybody who wants to go should go,” he said, adding, “They should use good common sense.”
His advice: Pass through Olympic venue screening areas as quickly as possible. Be cautious in casual situations, especially away from Olympic sites. Avoid public transportation and train stations, which Umarov’s followers target. And if you see somebody who looks suspicious, quickly and quietly leave the area without causing a commotion.
The latter could be tricky with the mix of ethnicities in that part of the country. “Russia is kind of an acquired taste,” said MinnPost contributor Nick Hayes, a history professor at St. John’s with an extensive knowledge of Russian history and politics. “To Americans, everybody looks shady.”
Hayes believes Sochi will be more secure than the outlying regions, but he still had no desire to go. He cited prohibitive airfares — about $2,000 booked well in advance and over $11,000 now. And he fears the military presence may choke the life out of the Olympic spirit.
“My impression is, it will be like a city under martial law,” Hayes said. “I’ve been in Russian cities under similar situations — I was in Moscow during the last election, 2012 — and it can be a numbing experience. I suspect it will affect the atmosphere of the Games.”