Scott Russell - Thursday Jan. 9, 2014 16:31

Sochi Olympics worth the risk for athletes

Field of Play: Major security concerns persist

Russia blast (news)
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As the Sochi Olympics get closer, it's increasingly obvious that a significant number of people out there have major concerns about the event.

Before every Olympic gathering, regardless of geographic location, there are questions of preparedness and weather conditions that dominate the public discussion. And in the modern era, the issue of security in a dangerous world dominates the consciousness of many observers.

The reality is the possibility of a terrorist attack has become the elephant in the room every time the Games approach.

To fuel the fire in this case, there is the knowledge that in the largest nation on the planet, universal human rights are not yet guaranteed. There's also an overwhelming perception that corrupt forces have a great deal of control in the host country.

"I don't feel that Russia is the same kind of place we're used to," said four-time Olympic medallist and CBC speed skating analyst Kristina Groves. "Then again, it's always portrayed as being worse than it actually is."

What's becoming apparent is that there remains, for many Canadians, an element of mystery and suspicion about Russia. There's a lingering supposition that, by going to these Olympics, we're all engaging in a risky enterprise.

Recently, I was invited to be a guest on a popular radio sports program and thought I was going to be discussing the prospects of the Canadian Olympic team's performance with a month to go before the opening ceremony.

Instead, the hosts of the show pressed me on everything from stadium construction to massive security provisions, a lack of snow in the mountains, and the possibility of athlete-led demonstrations against Russian anti-homosexual legislation.

In each case, the interviewers asked me how the athletes were going to be affected by all that was happening around their fields of play in Sochi.

I had to tell them that I didn't know because I'm not an Olympic athlete.

But I promised myself that in the coming days I'd find out.

No control

As our entire CBC production crew gathered exactly a month from Sochi, I sought out some of the 18 Olympians who were in the room and asked them about the controversies surrounding Sochi. Collectively they have won an amazing 28 Olympic medals over the course of their careers, competed around the globe, and all had faced similar prospects in one way or another.

They were more than qualified to offer an athlete's perspective on taking risks.

On the subject of the potential lack of snow that threatens the mountain venues in a temperate, maritime region, Jenn Heil, the 2006 Olympic moguls champion, weighed in.

"If you're an Olympian who competes outdoors you deal with weather conditions all your life," Heil said. "It's an Olympic Games. The events will happen. The snow is going to be there in Sochi by whatever means."

Heil offered as evidence her experience in Vancouver, where she won a silver medal at Cyprus Mountain on trucked in snow in 2010. "It didn't affect me," she said. "Athletes have to get used to managing the situations which are beyond their control. In Sochi the snow conditions will be challenging because they will be changing all the time. But the snow will be there."

Kayaker Adam van Koeverden has captured four medals over three Olympics, including gold in Athens in 2004.

"Everyone said Athens would never be ready," he laughed. "But we ended up having such a great experience there."

Van Koeverden also competed in 2008 in Beijing, where prior to and throughout the Games the human rights abuses evident in the People's Republic of China were a constant source of concern. He sees similarities in the way athletes are approaching the challenges of Russia.

"No one can control [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and no one can control the weather," he said. "The reason athletes are successful is because they're good at focusing on what they can control and are not consumed by what they can't. They might be mindful of these things but it won't affect their performance."

As to the consternation developing over security issues, which have been heightened by recent bombings in Russia, Groves harkened back to her experience in Salt Lake City in 2002. In that case the Olympics were less than five months removed from the devastation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"There were bomb checks every day and on every car," Groves said of the armed fortress that Salt Lake City became during the course of those Games. "I never felt unsafe. It's everyone else besides the athletes who are talking about it. You accept that there's risk in anything you do and you go. The alternative is not going, and as an athlete you never choose that alternative."

Ready or not

There is no doubt that Russia presents an entirely different set of problems and in no way should those dangers and abuses be trivialized. Still, the athletes, who are the central characters in the story, and who are in fact the reason that the Olympics exist in the first place, are the ones who are least distracted by all the noise pertaining to why the Games should not be in Russia.

It's too late and the decision has already been made.

They are going to be in Russia.

The athletes have decided to accept that, and instead of looking in the rearview mirror they'll focus on the job that's in front of them.

"The Olympics are supposed to be a force for change," van Koeverden said. "What's better, to avoid countries that have these kinds of issues or to focus the attention of the world on those issues for a number of years in the lead-up to the Games? Do we only have the Olympics in countries which are perfect? If that's the case, then in the winter we're only ever going to Norway."

That's the thing with the Olympics, which happen to be the largest spectacle on the face of the earth. In this day and age they are a risky business, and no one knows that better than the athletes themselves.

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