LOPRESTI: The Sochi Olympics—a bizarre blend of sport and fear

February 1, 2014
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mike lopresti sportsAnd you thought Indianapolis had to worry about security when the Super Bowl was in town …

The Olympic Games, that tribute to global peace and brotherhood, are starting soon. The fervent hope is, nobody dies.

By now, you’ve no doubt heard the alarms going off from Sochi, Russia. They’re on the lookout for terrorists on every corner. What a way to build up to a fortnight when all the world wants to do is play in the snow. And all you want to do is catch some Olympics splendor on television, since this is absolutely the only time in four years you’re willing to watch curling.

I have covered 16 of these shindigs, with all their security concerns, going back to 1984 in Sarajevo. That was the first time I was ever frisked by a guy holding a machine gun.

I have seen SWAT teams on alert for the marathon. Patriot missile sites up and running just over the outfield wall at softball. Barbed wire protecting the ice rink. Mirrors poked under my bus looking for bombs.

I once tried to do a story on an East German athlete, which meant going through the secret police, Stasi. A real bunch of live wires, those folks. The only time they ever smiled was when an American was falling off the balance beam.

I interviewed an Iranian skier, which meant two men with grim faces sitting next to me as I spoke to her. Careful with those questions.

I know the drill for Olympics security. Beforehand, everyone frets and carries on about nightmare scenarios. In the end, everything usually turns out fine. Until the bills arrive, anyway. You don’t hire an entire army on peanuts.

But I can’t ever remember foreboding in the air quite like this.

Maybe it’s because the bad guys do not have to slip into the country. They’re already there, and they’ve already killed.

American athletes have been told to wear their colors proudly at the venues. But, for heaven’s sake, never in public.

Normally, when you see the faces of young women from the Winter Olympics splashed on newspaper pages around the world, they’re figure skaters. At the moment, they’re the so-called Black Widows. Going to Sochi? That lady checking in at the hotel in front of you might be a suicide bomber. Welcome to the Games.

This time, the Russians are the good guys. The Red Army and the KGB might have been the villains in the Cold War, but everyone must now hope the Russian military and intelligence forces are up to snuff. Or something very bad might happen. Three cheers for the Cossacks!

Vladimir Putin is nobody’s idea of Mr. Rogers, but he’s protecting a lot of folks in his neighborhood the next three weeks.

Don’t worry about turning on the television to find mayhem breaking out at ski jumping. It won’t happen. I have gone through enough Olympics security checkpoints, screenings and metal detectors to know how hard it would be to attack inside a venue. You have to do everything but give blood to enter the Olympic Village, where the athletes stay.

Remember the security around Lucas Oil Stadium a couple of years ago? Multiply it by 50.

Outside is the worry. The restaurants, the trains, the pubs, the buses, the streets. It takes tens of thousands to put on the Olympics, and billions watch. But just one person with malice in his heart and a device in his backpack can mar it all. Just one. Ask Atlanta.

But the Games go on, as they must. The next few weeks are always unusual for the American sports viewer, with their odd combinations.

One Sunday it’s the Super Bowl at center stage. The next, it’s the biathlon.

Think the Pacers will beat Dallas next week? Think the hockey team will beat Slovakia?

For your viewing pleasure, you can have Indiana vs. Purdue. Or, the luge. Butler against the traditional might of the Big East. Or, the cross-country skiers against the traditional might of Norway.

And what will they be talking about at the office: the NFL Scouting Combine, or the Nordic combined?

I miss covering the Olympics. I miss the three-hour bus rides up a mountain to see the last four seconds of the downhill. I miss the anthems for the winners at the award ceremonies (if we’re talking the best tune, by the way, Germany gets the gold). I miss once again trying to figure out why Iceland has never won a medal at the Winter Olympics. But listening to so many dire words of so many voices, this might be a good time to watch from home.

In Indiana, where we’re certainly having winter, if not the Olympics, we can look on from afar, trying to remind ourselves again what ladies’ moguls is. This is the rare chance to flip back and forth between the Big Ten race and bobsledding.

We watch hoping for drama, but no explosions, for these are the truly modern Olympics. They came with the halfpipe, and genuine fear.•


Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mlopresti@ibj.com.


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