By Philip Hersh, Tribune reporter
7:25 PM CDT, April 19, 2013
After two trips to the 2014 Sochi Olympic bobsled venue over the past two winters, sled pusher Katie Eberling of Palos Hills said she is not worried about returning or having family members travel there because of links between the prime suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings and areas of Russia near Sochi.
“At no point did I not feel safe,” Eberling said Friday. “There was a huge security presence. It was ten-fold what we see at the World Cup races and the world championships.
“(Olympic) visitors are going to have to be aware of their surroundings and be smart, but I have full faith we are going to be protected and taken care of.”
Reports have said the two Boston suspects, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are ethnic Chechens who lived for some time in Dagestan. Both are republics of the Russian Federation.
Both Chechnya and Dagestan have been centers of both separatist terror groups, and the possibility such groups may have been involved in the Boston bombings underscores the already heightened security concerns over the 2014 Winter Olympics.
All Olympics since the 1972 Munich Summer Games, when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and officials, have dealt with security against terrorism.
But Sochi will be the first to take place in a region with such a recent history of attacks carried out both in the area and elsewhere by groups affiliated with the area.
Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is about 500 miles from Sochi. Dagestan abuts the eastern border of Chechnya. In May, 2012, according to news reports, Russian authorities foiled a planned terror attack on Sochi and seized weapons and ammunition in the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia, some 150 miles to the southeast of the Olympic host city.
Wednesday, Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said the security system being put in place is designed to make the Sochi Winter Games “the safest in history.”
In an email Friday, International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams reiterated the IOC position that security at the Olympics is the responsibility of local authorities.
“We have no doubt that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” Adams wrote.
Eberling, world championships silver medalist this year and a top contender for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, is among many U.S. athletes and officials who have been to Sochi the past two years for training or test events at the 2014 Winter Games venues.
She said there was a barbed-wire-fence perimeter around the area of the bobsled track in Rzhanaya Polyana, about 40 miles northeast of Sochi. Credentialed athletes, team personnel and officials passed through metal detectors before gaining admission to the area.
“You could tell they were testing the security preparations for the Games,” she said.
Olympic champion Alpine skier Ted Ligety of Park City, Utah, has posted pictures on his web site that show metal detectors at the entrance to the gondola to the mountain and security personnel in place on the slopes. He reported being turned back from off-course free skiing by a “ski patrol” member with a machine gun.
"Up on the start yesterday there was military personnel. That's a little unusual - sniper and automatic rifles up there we don't see that every day," Olympic champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway told the Associated Press during the Sochi alpine test event in 2012.
U.S. Figure Skating media relations manager Renee Felton, who accompanied the U.S. team at December’s Grand Prix Final in Sochi, said everyone passed through metal detectors before entering the “coastal cluster” Olympic Park, which includes venues for opening and closing ceremonies, figure skating, speed skating, hockey and curling and the Olympic Village
“I was told we were going through security (at the park) similar to the Games,” Felton said.
Eberling said U.S. athletes were advised not to travel alone if they were walking in the areas near the hotels where they stayed the past two years. She said there were armed security staff in the lobby of the hotels and police checkpoints at major street intersections.
During the Olympics, skiing and sledding athletes will have two secured Olympic villages in the mountain venues.
At recent Winter Olympics, leading skiers often have stayed at private residences, which can complicate security plans. There likely will be fewer such arrangements in Sochi because of limited private housing in the area.
The USOC always prefers its athletes stay in designated Olympic villages for security reasons. It likely will emphasize that even more for Sochi.
"At any games, no matter the location, security for our team is the highest priority,” USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky wrote in an email Friday. “Like past Games ,we will work closely with the local organizing committee, our State Department and law enforcement agencies to ensure the proper security plan is in place."
Ice dance world champion Meryl Davis of West Bloomfield, Mich., who won a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Games, said the security at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi was far more extensive and detailed than she had seen for any competition other than the Olympics.
"We (she and partner Charlie White) were surprised and pleased at the security level for the Grand Prix Final," she said. "It gave me insight into how dedicated the Russians are to making this a wonderful event for everyone."
Davis said her parents intend to go to the 2014 Olympics.
"Security is on everyone's mind at the Olympics," she said,. "I have a lot of confidence in the Russian government and the way they are approaching these games. I would not say I am more concerned (because of what has happened in Boston.)"
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