Safety of American athletes still a concern at Winter Olympics

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By CATHRYN WALKER

WASHINGTON — With the Sochi Olympics set to start Feb. 6, security analysts still aren’t convinced that American athletes will be safe.

“This is a real terrorist threat that exposes athletes, sponsors and U.S. citizens that are going to attend the event,” Juan Zarate, senior adviser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ homeland security and counterterrorism program, said.

“There’s a growing sense of lack of confidence in the security, even despite Russian assurances.”

He and other security analysts spoke recently about the implications that recent terrorist attacks and threats will have on the games. Approximately 235 U.S. athletes will be attending the Olympic games this year.

Former Olympian Tom Fitzgerald competed on the U.S. handball team in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when a bomb exploded in Centennial Park, killing three people and injuring more than 100 tourists and family members. No athletes were harmed.

Fitzgerald said he trusts the Olympic security process because it’s proven effective in the past. “We have to trust Russia,” Fitzgerald said. “If I had planned on going, I don’t think what’s happened would cause me not to go.”

Now an accountant in New York, Fitzgerald said that, after the attack, security inside the Olympic Village heightened.

Security

Security officials checked identification more thoroughly at the entrance, cafeteria and athletes’ training sites. Helicopters followed teams to practice sites, and officials routinely checked for bombs. He said he felt safe. “There’s not much thought about terrorism or safety among athletes because they’re really interested in their competition,” he said.

Terrorists

In the months leading up to the Olympics, a number of terrorist attacks have taken place in towns near Sochi.

An Islamist group threatened to attack the Winter Olympic Games and took responsibility for the two suicide bombings that killed more than 34 people last month in Volgograd. The two men who made the threat said they have prepared a “present” for President Vladimir Putin and tourists as revenge for “all the Muslim blood that is shed around the world.”

Russian security officials began hunting for three Muslim women suspected of being part of the terrorist organization, Black Widows. Russian officials believe they are planning an attack at the Olympic torch relay.

Travel advisory

The U.S. issued a travel advisory for Russia Jan. 10. It urges U.S. citizens traveling to the Olympics to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which will dispense alerts to travelers and allow embassy officials to assist travelers if necessary.

“The system can be set up in a way that’s designed to focus on these kinds of threats. But it only takes one person, one corrupt guard who’s willing to look the other way … to have the entire thing come apart and for a successful attack to be pulled off,” Jeffrey Markoff, deputy director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia program, said.

The Pentagon offered its support to Russia. American aircraft and two ships in the Black Sea will be available to evacuate American athletes if necessary. Zarate said Olympic host countries usually accept security assistance from outside countries, but Putin has yet to accept.

“They are more concerned over the perception of insecurity and therefore not wanting to allow the U.S. and other security systems in on the ground to assist,” Zarate said about the Russian government.

In an interview with ABC News, Putin said he will do “whatever it takes” to keep the Olympics safe. Russia will deploy more than 30,000 police and soldiers in Sochi, making it the biggest security operation in Olympic history.

(Reach reporter Cathryn Walker, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire, at cathryn.walker@shns.com or 202-326-9867.)

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