Now that the two recent suicide bombings in Volgograd have put the country’s human rights issues in the background as the Winter Games draw near, the dominant question for the Sochi Olympics is whether the Russian government can prevent domestic terrorist attacks from destroying them.
“I am certain that everything will be done to ensure the security of the athletes and all the participants of the Olympic Games,” said International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. “Sadly, terrorism is a global disease, but it must never be allowed to triumph.”
Islamist militant leader Doku Umarov, who is believed to be involved with the Volgograd bombings, has vowed to disrupt the Games, which he likened to “Satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”
Even before the bombings, which killed more than 30 people, the organizers had made security preparations on a massive scale for miles in and around Sochi, which is between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains.
“When we come to Sochi, it will be impossible for the terrorists to do anything,” predicted IOC member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway. “The village will be sealed off from the outside world.”
Yet even if terrorists can’t get near the venues, they still can cast a pall over the Games by targeting civilians hundreds of miles away, as they did in Volgograd.
While Russian president Vladimir Putin has promised to “completely annihilate” terrorists, preventing attacks in a country of more than 6 million square miles that covers nine time zones is all but impossible.
Underdogs on ice
Except for ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Evan Bates (with different partner Madison Chock), the Vancouver veterans won’t be favored to earn Sochi spots at this week’s US Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden. Jeremy Abbott will have to outpoint either defending champ Max Aaron or Ross Miner, who both finished ahead of him last year. Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt will be in a scramble for the third women’s spot behind two-time titlist Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold. And Caydee Denney, now with John Coughlin, will have to finish ahead of either reigning pairs champs Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir or their fellow world teamers, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim . . . Though former Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko has conceded Russia’s only men’s figure skating spot to teenager Maxim Kovtun, who won the recent national title, the federation won’t name its Sochi entrant until after next week’s European Championships which Plushenko, who has won that title seven times, says he’ll skip. While the 31-year-old Plushenko figured he’d still be named for the team event, officials say it’s not possible.
‘Captain’ not aboard
While the omission of Ottawa sniper Bobby Ryan from the US men’s ice hockey team has caused the most stir, the toughest emotional cut was Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson, who was known as “Captain America” for his anytime-anywhere willingness to play for the national squad, particularly in the spring world championships, which customarily are held in Europe. Johnson, who chartered a plane to Vancouver at his own expense to march in the 2010 Opening Ceremonies (the only NHLer who did), was considered a sure thing during the summer but struggled during the season. Thus the dilemma for the selectors, who considered both the candidates’ “body of work” and current form. “It’s history vs. the present,” general manager David Poile mused during one of the discussion meetings. In the end, the committee opted for Anaheim’s Cam Fowler. The 25-man squad includes 13 members of the 2010 group that earned the silver medal behind Canada but only two of them — Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik — are defensemen. Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick, who last weekend played his first game since Nov. 12 after injuring his groin, is expected to be the starting goalie in Sochi ahead of Ryan Miller, who was the 2010 tournament MVP, and Jimmy Howard . . . After losing their first three tuneups with their Canadian archrivals without ever holding the lead, the US women’s hockey team won the final four meetings to go into the Games as the clear, if close, favorite for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1998. They’ll spend the upcoming month at their Bedford training base, fine-tuning things such as faceoffs and special teams, before their Feb. 8 opener against Finland. The 21-player roster, which has 11 former Olympians (including fourth-time forward Julie Chu), includes 10 players with New England ties: goalie Molly Schaus (Natick and Boston College), defensemen Kacey Bellamy (Westfield and UNH), Michelle Picard (Taunton and Harvard), and Josephine Pucci (Harvard), and forwards Alex Carpenter (North Reading and BC), Kendall Coyne (Northeastern), Chu (Fairfield, Conn., and Harvard), captain Meghan Duggan (Danvers), Lyndsey Fry (Harvard), and Kelli Stack (BC).
Dream is on track
Jessica Smith making the US short-track speedskating team last weekend was a reminder of the schism that divided the team last season in the wake of the resignation and suspension of coach Jae Su Chun for his allegedly abusive treatment of skaters. Smith, who just missed making the 2010 team, still trains with Chun on her own dime, and he was in the stands at the Utah trials. “He’s helped my dreams come true,” said Smith. “He’s stuck by me this whole time, just like I’ve stuck by him this entire time. It’s obviously paid off.” Only three members of the 2010 squad are returning: medalists J.R. Celski, Jordan Malone, and Alyson Dudek. Since the US didn’t qualify in the relay, the women’s team of Dudek, Smith, and Emily Scott will be the smallest since the sport was added to the program in 1992 . . . More than half of the 17-member US Olympic long-track speedskating team are Vancouver holdovers, most notably Shani Davis, who’ll be competing in his third Games at 31. If he wins the 1,000 meters in Sochi, he’ll be the first man to claim the same event three times in a row. Bonnie Blair, who won the 500 in 1988, 1992, and 1994, and Germany’s Claudia Pechstein, who took the 5,000 in 1994, 1998, and 2002, are the only women to manage it. Davis will skate at least three events, as will Heather Richardson, who swept the 500, 1,000, and 1,500 at the recent trials in Utah. Other returning Olympians are pursuit medalists Brian Hansen and Jonathan Kuck, Tucker Fredricks, Mitch Whitmore, Lauren Cholewinski, Maria Lamb, and Jilleanne Rookard.
Her spot is waiting
Even if Lindsey Vonn doesn’t race again before the Olympic alpine team is chosen this month, she’ll still likely be named to the roster if she figures to be fit by Feb. 12, when she’d be defending her downhill crown. “Well, it’s Lindsey Vonn,” said head coach Alex Hoedlmoser. “She doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. So if she’s ready to go, we’re going to bring her. And if she’s not, then not.” . . . US pilot Steve Holcomb’s seven-race winning streak on the World Cup bobsled circuit came to a crashing halt in Winterberg, Germany, last weekend when the Olympic champion finished seventh in the two-man with Melrose native Steve Langton, then placed 20th (after flipping) and seventh in the two four-man races. “It’s all about character now,” observed coach Brian Shimer. “Life unfortunately gives you ups and downs and the higher you go, the steeper you fall. We’ve all been through it.” The US women, who’d put at least two sleds on the podium in every Cup race, came agonizingly close to going 1-3. Elana Meyers and Lolo Jones missed the gold by a hundredth of a second while Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans were four-hundredths shy of the bronze. Noelle Pikus-Pace, meanwhile, made her fourth straight skeleton podium, claiming silver behind Great Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold . . . Making his sixth Olympic team — a record for US winter athletes — is Todd Lodwick, who won the Nordic combined trials at age 37. Lodwick, whose first Olympiad was Lillehammer in 1994 and who won a team silver in Vancouver last time, described his achievement as “daunting and humbling.” Russian luger Albert Demchenko (at 42) and Japanese jumper Noriaki Kasai (at 41) will share the overall record of seven when they compete in Sochi.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com; material from Olympic committees, sports federations, personal interviews, and wire services was used in this report.