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Editorial: A new wish for Olympic athletes: Stay safe

If you were Leanne Smith’s family in North Conway, would you travel to Sochi, Russia, to watch her compete for the U.S. Olympic alpine ski team? What if you were a friend of Olympic ski jumper Nick Alexander of Lebanon? Or a relative of cross-country skier Kris Freeman of Andover?

Smith, Alexander and Freeman are just three of numerous Olympic athletes with New Hampshire ties headed to Russia in a few days to compete. But the excitement that accompanies this year’s winter games – for athletes, families and viewers alike – has been tempered by a real fear of terrorist attacks. So far, no athletes have pulled out. But many families are weighing whether the trip is truly worth the risk. It’s easy to understand why – and nearly impossible to put ourselves in their shoes.

“It’s getting to the point where our lives are on the line if we go there,” Tim Oshie, whose son, T.J., is on the U.S. hockey team, told the New York Times. “They’re talking about terrorizing families. I’d rather stay in the homeland.”

Similarly, speedskater Tucker Fredricks has asked his family to stay home in Wisconsin and watch his competition on television.

Yesterday International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was compelled to defended the choice of Sochi as host of the Winter Olympics and expressed confidence that they would be “safe and secure.” He told reporters he is “sleeping very well” in the run-up to the games.

Hard to imagine, actually. Just last week the Olympic teams from the United States and some countries in Europe received emails warning of attacks if they participated in the games. The messages were determined to be a hoax, but the recipients were rattled. The State Department has issued a travel advisory warning travelers to “remain vigilant.” The athletes have been advised not to wear their team gear outside the Olympic venues, and members of Congress have expressed concern for the safety of the estimated 10,000 Americans planning to attend the games.

As well they should. Sochi is close to the terrorist hubs of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. There have been suicide bombings not far from the Olympic venues – and threats of more to come, including from three “black widow” bombers reportedly on the loose. Militants have recently claimed responsibility for attacks in a train station and on a bus, killing 34 people. And a top leader has called for his followers to “do their utmost” to derail the games.

On top of all that, gay athletes and visitors have a specific reason to be worried about their safety in a country with a law particularly hostile to them.

The Boston Marathon bombing (not to mention the Olympic Games in Atlanta and Munich) showed that no mass gathering can be guaranteed safe from such threats. But the notion that Sochi would make the best possible Olympic venue now seems dangerously far-fetched. The threat of violence hanging over the event obscures the values of international friendship the Games represent.

It’s not uncommon for us to use this space every couple of years to wish the American athletes – particularly those who mastered their sport in New Hampshire – good luck in their events. This year, it seems equally important to urge them to stay safe. Fears about Sochi are certainly not unreasonable. Let’s hope they are unrealized.

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