World holds breath over Olympic violence

RED WING — With the Sochi Winter Olympics just days away, travelers will be inundating Russia for a chance to cheer on national heroes — new and old — while their country's anthem blares through the speakers. Those numbers, however, are expected to be significantly lower than in past years due to rising safety concerns.

Unconfirmed reports of "black widow" suicide bombers being in Sochi have authorities on high alert. That prompted the U.S. Olympic Committee to issue a memo last week warning athletes not to wear Team USA apparel outside the compound because it "may put your personal safety at greater risk."

Suicide bombers who killed 34 people in the Russian city of Volgograd in December have made such concerns a tangible threat. The Games are being held about 300 miles from Islamist extremists who have threatened violence at previous Olympics.

Minnesota Wild star Ryan Suter recently told the Star Tribune that his family "scuttled their trip" over those concerns, while teammate Zach Parise has told his family to stay home from the Olympics, which are scheduled to run from Feb. 7-23.

"I'm actually really concerned about it," Parise wrote in an email to the Star Tribune. "I know they say they have evacuation stuff for us and all, but you just never know. I guess you have to wonder at what point does someone say it isn't a good idea for us to go."


Clay and Deb Diggins, Afton, Minn. residents who own the Red Wing Slumberland, see things a little differently. They booked their flights to Sochi last fall and haven't even considered canceling their plans to watch their 22-year-old daughter Jessie Diggins make her Olympic debut in cross-country skiing.

"We're not second-guessing at all," Deb said.

Added Clay: "Russia, they haven't made it easy to travel there. On the one hand it's a hassle … but on the other hand, those requirements do give you confidence that they're really verifying everything and their level of security is beyond what's been out there before. Sochi will probably be the safest place on the planet for those two weeks.

"We're taking the prudent precautions. At the same time, the Olympics is all about celebrating sport and having the world coming together. Wouldn't it be a shame to have something awful happen during that time?"

Russian President Vladimir Putin has enlisted an additional 37,000 black-clad troops to create a so-called "ring of steel" around the Olympic venues, which should help to protect the estimated 10,000 American citizens who plan to attend the Games.

However, some countries remain wary.

British officials have warned that additional terrorist attacks are "very likely to occur" either before the Olympics or during the competition; "soft" targets such as transportation hubs, hotels and popular tourist destinations are considered the most vulnerable sites.

The United States has also deployed two warships offshore in addition to offering air support, FBI agents and an open exchange of counter-intelligence information.


"As is always the case, we are working with the U.S. Department of State, the local organizers and the relevant law enforcing agencies in an effort to ensure that our delegation and other Americans traveling to Sochi are safe," USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun has said.

Travelers, such as the Diggins, will continue monitoring releases from the state department, but the Minnesota couple insists on being there to watch their daughter compete — which is music to Jessie's ears.

"I know that the Olympics will be hectic with lines and security, and I may not be able to see my family very much while they're there, but just knowing that they are cheering for me and believe in me gives me such a boost and is very important to me," Jessie Diggins said via email.

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