Security in Sochi is on the minds of local Olympians


The threat of terror can bring angst and uneasiness to anyone.

For Olympic athletes, giving the best athletic performance of their lives while representing their countries is more than enough to worry about.

Heading into the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the December suicide bombing in Russia, along with rumors of the Olympic arena being a target for terrorist groups, is bringing about talks of warships in the Black Sea, and FBI agents and bomb detection technology in Sochi. These factors make it easy to see why safety is such an important issue for the 2014 Winter Games.

Terrorism in Russia, and in Europe in general, may seem as if it's a world away for Berkshire County residents. However, as thousands of athletes and spectators prepare to leave for Sochi, the thought of a terrorist attack, and what to do in the occurrence of one, cannot be dismissed.

Terry Holland, Pittsfield native and coach for the New Zealand skeleton team, knows firsthand how terrorism can affect the Olympic Games.

"There was a real high state of concern in the 2002 Games because it was five months after 9/11," he said. "[Sochi] is a different kind of thing. [Salt Lake] was your country you were representing, and you weren't going to blink."

There are contingency plans put in place by countries with athletes competing in Sochi to evacuate in case of an emergency. This fact, however, does not make it easier on the families of the athletes, Holland said.

"There is some anxiety -- less on my part than the people around me," he said. "People I know are all more nervous about going than I am.

"I have multiple ways out of Sochi in the event something awkward transpires. The New Zealanders have their own security and evacuation plans."

The concern over the safety of family members has prompted some Olympic athletes to tell their loved ones not to make the trip to Sochi.

Lenox resident Patty Spector, mother of 2010 Olympic biathlete Laura Spector, said she understands the dilemma that the athletes heading to Sochi are facing. She said the decision not to compete would be extremely difficult, even when weighing safety concerns.

"When you know what goes into becoming an Olympic athlete, and you finally make the team, it's incredibly difficult to take that away from somebody," Spector said.

Spector and Williamstown resident Samantha Livingstone, a gold-medal swimmer that competed in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, both say the Olympic security process is intense.

For Livingstone, the Sydney Games were the first Summer Games after Atlanta in 1996, when a bombing killed two and injured hundreds more. When comparing the security of Sydney with the security of Atlanta with teammates, Livingstone said they noticed a significant difference.

Sydney brought about stricter restrictions on who could enter the Olympic Village. Metal detectors and bag searches were present at the venue entry points. Badges were also needed while in the village.

"Because it was post-Atlanta, from what [teammates] had said, security was heightened," Livingstone said. "As athletes, it was part of our everyday routine.

"Just to get from the Olympic Village to the pool, you had to go through so many layers of security and checkpoints. They'd do sweeps of the buses to check for any suspicious bags, and they were very aware of how many bags and who was bringing what on the bus."

Spector said the Olympic security is somewhat similar to what you'd see in an airport. While the lines to enter venues became congested because of the security measures, she said the process helped put her at ease.

"It's reassuring, even if it was a nuisance," Spector said. "We were pretty much on high alert, and it's something you've come to expect."

Even with the intense security measure within the athletes' village, spectators staying outside the village in hotels around Sochi should be on alert as well. Americans have been advised not to wear Team USA gear outside of the Olympic arena to avoid putting their safety in jeopardy.

Laura Spector is not competing in Sochi, but after her experience in Vancouver, she said she has faith that the United States Olympic Committee will keep the athletes safe.

She added, however, with the safety concerns in Sochi, if a family member decided it was unsafe to travel there, she would understand.

"The athletes that are there now are in a different situation. I felt safe. I never had to worry about safety," she said. "I imagine that there are a number of families staying home for safety and financial reasons. I would be fine with my family staying home. I'd want them to be safe."

With all the training and focus it takes to reach the Olympics, the ability to block out your surroundings, and remain singularly focused on competing at a high level, is necessary.

Livingstone said she does not think security concerns will break the concentration of an Olympic athlete.

"It's your job. It's what you eat, it's what you live, it's what you breathe and you've done it so many times," she said. "You're so in the zone -- I look back and see what was going on around me -- but in the moment you're only focused on yourself."

She added that it may be possible to feel unsafe, but a strong, focused mindset will overcome those thoughts.

"[Feel unsafe] maybe in your down time, but you're so hyper-focused and so locked in to what you're doing that you just have to push those thoughts out of your mind and don't entertain them," Livingstone said.

To reach Akeem Glaspie:,
or (413) 496-6252.
On Twitter: @THEAkeemGlaspie.


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