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Our Views: A flickering flame

Glitches, terrorism worries cast an early cloud over Sochi’s Olympics

POSTED: February 9, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Though we’re all likely sick of snow and ice in this part of the world, now we have a chance now to enjoy some frozen stuff from a comfortable distance by watching talented athletes slide around on it with skill and purpose.

The Winter Olympics are underway, two weeks worth of skiing, skating, hockey and hotdogging on the rinks and slopes of Sochi, Russia.

As an Olympic city, Gainesville can take special interest. Even in trading canoes for bobsleds, the spirit of the Games remains constant here and elsewhere, with the same five-ring flag that flew over Lake Lanier gracing the new venues.

The opening ceremonies were dazzling and the competition off to a strong start. But even as we look forward to relearning the rules of curling, rooting for the next figure skating queen and hoping for another Miracle on Ice, there already is a pall cast on these Olympics from outside of the competitive arena.

The specter of terrorism, part of our world and the Olympics for years, has emerged anew in Sochi. Threats of specific attacks raising alerts include explosives supposedly packed into toothpaste tubes and carried on airplanes, and shadowy “black widow” suicide bombers. Those perils have put everyone on edge and visitors are warned to be wary.

One reaction to such fears has been to discourage U.S. spectators from showing their national colors too openly while in Sochi, lest it encourage anti-American assassins to make them targets.

That’s a shame. Showing your patriotic pride is a part of the Games and one of its attractions. We all may root for different teams during our pro, college and high school seasons here, but we unite behind Team USA during the Olympics. Now those who have gone through the expense and trouble to travel there and support our athletes can’t cheer too loudly, lest it put them in danger.

Perhaps it’s easy to say this from a safe distance, but it would be tempting to do just the opposite and wear the stars and stripes proudly throughout Sochi. Silencing that pride and enthusiasm is another way to give in to terrorist goons and make the fear they hope to sow ever more real. Remember, the goal of terrorism isn’t just to kill; it’s to cause terror. Those who refuse to show fear defy them.

Then again, the Russian hosts haven’t inspired confidence in their ability to keep athletes and spectators safe. Though the government has vowed to keep security tight, there are doubts whether it can fulfill that promise. For instance, though liquids in carry-on luggage were banned, many travelers brought such items past checkpoints without being challenged. Those seeking to smuggle in something more deadly may find it less of a challenge in the isolated Black Sea resort city.

Friday, even as the opening ceremonies were being staged came news of a foiled attempt to hijack a plane from Turkey that as bound for Sochi.

Those arriving early in Sochi were telling tales of the poisoning of stray dogs and unfinished hotels with nonworking plumbing, undrinkable water and other annoyances that led many to believe the Russians are in over their head. If you can’t handle basics like light bulbs and shower curtains, can you thwart coordinated terrorist attacks? Kind of makes it clear how they lost the Cold War.

Beyond that, the big picture shows a Russian economy that is struggling, so its ability to stage these Games successfully is under a microscope.

Such worries have carried over to at least one competitive venue, a snowboarding course that led to one serious injury already and caused U.S. star Shaun White to pull out of the event because he felt it too risky.

And before visitors began arriving in Sochi, the Russian policy of open discrimination against gays sparked protests and backlash, even encouraging President Barack Obama to appoint a U.S. diplomatic delegation that included Billy Jean King, Greg Louganis and other high-profile gay athletes.

The Atlanta Games, we recall through clenched teeth, received their share of criticism during and after the 1996 Games. The Centennial Park bombing by a domestic terrorist put the city’s effort under a cloud, but in retrospect, the other incidents that led some to consider those Olympics a failure were rather trivial, namely too many sidewalk vendors and a few bus drivers who got lost.

Beyond that, the Olympics of Atlanta and Gainesville were a success on and off the field, and visitors had a grand time. They surely enjoyed their stay here; the Lake Lanier venue for rowing, canoeing and kayaking roundly was praised and our city declared “the hospitality capital of the world” by gracious NBC announcer Charlie Jones.

Since then, the glitch-filled 2004 Olympics in cash-strapped Athens, Greece, made Atlanta’s effort look first-rate in comparison. Now Sochi threatens to lower the bar further.

It’s no easy task to host the world for two weeks and keep everyone happy and safe. As the world becomes more dangerous and the Olympics grow by adding more sports, nations and spectators, it becomes that much harder to pull off.

But it can be done, as London showed two years ago. The right host city and national effort can keep the focus on the athletes and off politics, security dangers and infrastructure hazards.

The world is watching to see if the Russians can measure up and get past their early snags. Now it’s up to the world’s greatest skiers and skaters to put on a memorable show that will overshadow other issues before the torch is passed to Pyeongchang, South Korea, two Sundays from now.


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