Winter Olympics: Fear and Hope Abound in Sochi

Tension among participants is running high, reports Olympian and veteran broadcaster Donna de Varona

Sochi Olympics Security
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Olympic swimming champion and sports broadcaster Donna de Varona is reporting for Variety on the scene in Sochi. She has attended every Olympic Games since 1960, with the exception of the 1980 Moscow games.

Never before has the threat of terrorism been so tangible leading up to an Olympic games.

As we flew into Sochi, brilliant lights flooded the brand-new airport landing strip, turning dawn into daylight. After passing though passport control we were met by the young volunteer faces of Russia. They welcomed us to Sochi in English and told us they are proud we are here. Hope is written all over them. They have come from every region of Russia, from Siberia to Moscow and St Petersburg, in anticipation of taking part in the first-ever Winter Olympics held in Russia. They represent a new concept in this country: volunteerism. Some 200,000 applied to be volunteers, and 25,000 were accepted.

But stepping outside the airport, imposing layers of steel and barbed wire greeted us. We were ushered into an official car and driven into the interior of Olympic Park. Once we entered we felt protected and a bit safer, but we are now sealed into an armed Olympic family camp. Inside the Black Sea Olympic Cluster, where the indoor venues are located and athletes are housed in luxurious apartments, each travel bag is searched, all electronic equipment has to be turned on and every metal item is inspected.

Vladimir Putin has promised a safe games. But truthfully, it is tense here.

A Platform for Protest

Ever since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute, the Olympics have become an irresistible platform for activists. Sochi is no exception. Putin’s endorsement of anti-gay policies has fueled a worldwide campaign and in the process the LGBT community has taken the spotlight.

For the first time during an International Olympic Committee session, the United Nations General Secretary Ban-Ki-moon opened the meeting. During his speech he gave a strong endorsement of UN and IOC anti -discrimination policies and spoke out against hatred. “It has no place in the 21st century,” he said.

I read a comment that the gay community will boycott Olympic television coverage of the games. I find this counter-intuitive as many gay athletes will take center stage during the Olympics in Sochi — a community that openly welcomes athletes of all sexual orientation, even as the national government has criminalized pro-gay speech.

With respect to the reported $51 billion price tag to host these games, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was left with few training centers. Sochi will serve many purposes after the paralympians depart in March. It has become a state-of-the-art sports training center and ski resort and will host some of the 2018 FIFA World Cup soccer events. It is likely this facility would have been built even if the games had not been awarded to Sochi.

In hindsight Putin’s charm during the bidding process some seven years ago did put the now-controversial Sochi bid over the top. Enough IOC members believed his virtual project would come to life. Thank President Carter too; the Sochi prize was partial pay back for the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow games.

This is my 25th journey to an Olympics, counting Winter and Summer Games. I competed in two and have covered many as a writer or broadcaster. The movement has come full circle. It has survived boycotts, near bankruptcy, doping and bribing scandals and yes, terrorism. Though all this the IOC has adapted but recognizes it must do more. The biggest threat to the Olympics is from the outside, from those who seek to use it as a platform to exploit — to threaten, to cause harm.

I was in Munich in 1972 covering the swimming events for ABC when terrorists attacked the Israeli Olympic team. The experience was transformative, and those memories have come flooding back in the nervous environment here in Sochi.

Olympics Under Siege

On that chaotic day back in 1972, it was nearly dusk when I finally made my way back to the Olympic Village.

I’d debated whether I wanted to return to the ABC production truck to help with coverage of the news of the day: Israeli hostages were being held at gun point in the cinder block apartments abutting the all women’s athletes dorm. Somehow jockeying for a position to report this kind of news troubled me, it seemed exploitative, especially in view of the fact that ABC’s senior journalists were haggling over the assignment.

I was the only woman reporter on ABC’s team and as such had an advantage, as I could gain entry into the Women’s Village and report from there. It was a long night as I lay on the grass, walkie-talkie in my hand. My reports never aired; my job was to talk to ABC Sports president Roone Arledge and update him for Jim McKay, ABC’s Olympics anchor.

Like most Olympic host cities, Munich had been hopeful the 1972 Olympic games would serve as coming-out party. Some 27 years after World War II, Germany’s Olympic organizing committee wanted to put the horrors of the Holocaust and Hitler’s Germany behind them.

For those of us attending the games — and unaware of pending threats — the security measures taken on the first days of the Munich Olympics felt extreme. Some veteran reporters coming off previous sporting assignments began coining these Olympics, “the Nazi games.” In response, security measures were loosened. Day after day spirits soared as swimmer Mark Spitz chased down gold. How ironic it was that an American of Jewish heritage was raising the profile of a country yearning for relief from its burden of guilt.

My role as a field reporter ended the minute the Israeli hostages and their captors were transported to the airport from the Olympic Village. Hours later, Jim McKay simply announced “They are all gone.” Anticipating a counter-attack, the members of the Black September terrorist group had exchanged clothing with the athletes. German snipers took the bait. All 11 Israeli athletes perished that night in a firefight. Sadly, the German authorities had turned down Israel’s offer to help.

For the first time in modern Olympic history the games came to a halt. However instead of canceling them, the IOC decided not to bow to terrorism but instead to grant a day of mourning for the Israelis who lost their lives.

Then and Now

More than 40 years later, fear again stalks the games. It’s unnerving to know that three “black widows,” (a trio of women ages 19, 24 and 27 who are suspected of being would-be suicide bombers) have penetrated the Ring of Steel and are willing to blow themselves up to disrupt the games. Experience and age have opened my eyes to the possibility of what might happen. For parents of competitors who can not afford the expense to be here, I cannot imagine what it would feel like to watch from thousands of miles away while their child competes under the specter of violence.

The International Olympic Committee’s new president, Thomas Bach of Germany, was a young Olympic fencing hopeful during the Munich games. Four years later he captured a gold medal during the 1976 Montreal Games. Since then he has devoted his life to sport. He has witnessed firsthand how the Olympics have survived and evolved. He supported Russia’s refusal to let the U.S. do more to protect the athletes. Hopefully his decision will prove the right one. We Olympic “lifers” hope so too.

The Olympic movement has come of age. Yes the Olympics are a global experiment — a real- life fantasy. Every two years the Olympics provide a gathering place for those seeking common ground. They offer young, maturing and talented athletes the opportunity to to perform on the world stage and in so doing inspire the best in all of us. This effort should be given support. For in this volatile world it is comforting to know the world can gather peacefully, if only for 17 days.