Is the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Worth the Potential Risks?

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Mounting a Summer or Winter Olympics is always a pain in the ass. Logistically, you have to plot sporting venues, where and how to house, feed and transport the athletes and officials, burnish your infrastructure, make sure there are enough places to stay for visitors from around the world and put the best face on your hosting city and country. Not to mention rounding up billions and billions to pay for the extravaganza.

Sochi, Russia, population around 350,000, is a relatively small city for this kind of undertaking. Russia “won” the bidding for this year’s Winter Olympics back in 2007. I’m not sure the United State’s best and brightest winter Olympians should bother to show up. I wouldn’t call it a boycott. I’d call it possibly erring on the side of caution.

There’s plenty of cause for concern dating back to Russia’s “victory” over separatists elements in Chechnya in the 1990’s. The action has since shifted to the Republic of Dagestan. The Washington Post reports that more Russian soldiers have died in fighting there for a short time, than Americans in Afghanistan. Dagestan first came to our attention when it turned out that Boston Marathon bombing brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had once lived there before coming to the U.S. In fact, Tamerlan had visited the area for six months, a short time before the deadly bombing.

There have been three highly concerning bombings in the city of Volgograd (once known as Stalingrad) in a recent October-December span. It started in October of last year with a city bus suicide bombing traced to a 30-year-old Dagestani woman. Then, on the consecutive days of December 29 and 30, 2013, there was an explosion in a Volgograd train station followed the next day by a trolley bus suicide bombing. Several dozen lives were lost in the three incidents.

Prior to these terrorist’s incidents, September saw Chechnya back in the picture with a rash of suicide bombers targeting Russian police, killing a half-dozen within a week’s period. These are dangerous extremists who would love to blow up any American in Winter Olympic garb to make a political statement.

And lest I forget, six men lost their lives in southern Russia after being shot a day or so ago. Their bodies were recovered from four abandoned cars that were near the Caucasus Mountains where an Islamic insurgency is supposedly simmering.

Don’t get me wrong. Sochi, itself, is a very compelling Black Sea coastal city surrounded by the beauty of the Caucasus Mountains where the resort city of Krasnaya Polyana will be the site of various ski competitions. There are countless venues for the assorted competition events with seating ranging from 3,000 to 40,000 spectators.

There are also countless problems over and above the terrorist threats. The biggest problem is the tab. It’s an estimated $51 billion, exceeding by $7 billion the total paid by runner-up China for the privilege of hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing. Vancouver, by contrast, paid somewhat over $8 billion in 2010 for their Winter Olympics.

For the home folks in Sochi, there have been water and landslide problems. There have also been charges of wide-spread waste, overruns and corruption, with some accusing President Vladimir Putin of pocketing billions in payoffs. Lord knows the Russian ultra-repressive attitude toward gays is reason enough to say thanks, but no thanks to Sochi. And it’s no secret that tiny, arrogant, Putin and President Obama are pretty much the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s of global diplomacy.

But just about every Olympics have similar problems. These can either be overcome or ignored from February 6-23 for the enjoyment of the actual events themselves. Many Americans still remember the stirring USA hockey win over the highly favored and talented Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics, allowing the Americans to go on to win the gold by dispatching Finland in the championship game. There’s a whole roster of gifted figure skaters who triple axeled, salchowed, sit spinned and quadded their way into our hearts and memories. I love the daring-do of the downhill, the bobsled (bobsleigh for the snooty) and the luge where speeds can brush 100 mph on a tiny sled with no protection. Two luge athletes have been killed in practice mishaps.

Then there’s the wildly exciting speed skating and, yes, even curling. Any “sport” that can combine ice, a stone with a handle, a broom and the name ‘curling’ has to be held in awe. There is really not a single Winter Olympic sport I don’t enjoy, but not at the cost of a human life to terrorists.

Boycotting, if you want to call it that, is not new. The best-known no-show was Jimmy Carter’s USA team when the president decided the U.S. would skip the 1980 Summer Moscow Olympics. Ironically, the decision centered on Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan. Carter was joined by 64 other nations of the same mind. There have been tons of boycotts over the years for myriad reasons, but 1980 remains the most high profile.

I guess the reason I’m extremely worried about the upcoming Sochi Olympics dates back over 40 years, when, as a very young man, I can remember the late, great sports journalist, Jim McKay and his 16-hour description of what was dubbed the “Munich Massacre” at the 1972 Summer Olympics. A Palestinian terrorist group, “Black September”, managed to sneak into Olympic Village at 4:30AM and hold 9 Israeli Olympians and one German Police officer hostage, after killing two athletes during the initial resistance.

Black September members demanded over 200 Palestinian prisoners be released along with the founders of two German terrorist groups. When these demands were not met after day-long negotiations, a shootout followed late in the day when authorities lured the terrorists into a trap at an airport. Sadly, the remaining nine hostages were killed in the subsequent melee by terrorist’s gunfire and a grenade. Five of the eight terrorists were also killed.

Even though Putin is spending a reported $2 billion on security and has made all kinds of safety assurances, I wouldn’t send any of my adult children to Sochi under current circumstances. The terrorists might possibly use Sochi to make a point, however demented. My youngest son once spent an academic summer in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but that was a few years ago during a lull before things really heated up. Though he speaks the language fairly well and retains some contacts, I’d barely be able to sleep at night if he were to return to Russia for the Winter Olympics.

The chances of American athletes staying home are nil and, quite possibly, the terrorists will weigh world reaction and decide against initiating any kind of murderous activities. Let’s hope so.

If Americans do chance to compete: “USA, USA, USA!!!”

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