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Winter Olympians wary, willing

Athletes won't let fear keep them from competing in Salt Lake City

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Britain's Alexandra Coomber is used to danger. A Royal Air Force officer, she thinks nothing of streaking down a sheet of ice at 70 mph with just a few inches of air separating herself and her sled from disaster.

It's no surprise, then, that the two-time World Cup skeleton champion isn't too concerned about terrorist attacks at the Feb. 8-24 Salt Lake Olympics.

''I'm not worried in the slightest,'' Coomber said. ''In the UK, we're used to the threat, it's something that's always there. If there was any risk, my management or the British Olympic Association wouldn't let the team go. I can't imagine the Salt Lake organizing committee would jeopardize athletes.''

Coomber feels more secure than most, if an informal sampling of probable Olympians is any indication.

Athletes from around the world say they're nervous about flying to the United States, and worried about possible terrorist actions once they get to Salt Lake City.

At the same time, however, they are nearly unanimous in this: They vow to compete in the Winter Olympics no matter what the state of the world is come Feb. 8.

''I don't think they'll stage the Olympics if they can't guarantee security,'' said Sweden's Per Elofsson, last year's World Cup cross-country ski champion. ''It's a demand. The athletes can't be at risk.''

Norwegian speedskater Adne Sondral, a gold medalist in Nagano, agreed.

''I have complete faith in the Americans' security setup,'' Sondral said. ''Statistically, I think there is a greater chance of dying on the road to (the Norwegian national airport) Gardermoen before departure than being in Salt Lake during the Olympics.''

Salt Lake organizers are trying their best to convince foreign athletes that they will be safe in Utah despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and continuing anthrax worries.

So far, they say, everyone is coming. But they're not taking any chances, with organizers stepping up efforts this week to reassure some 2,600 athletes from around the world that things will be calm for 2 1/2 weeks in February.

Those efforts were made tougher earlier this week when French slalom champion Pierrick Bourgeat and teammate Frederic Covili expressed worries about going to the United States for two World Cup races and the Olympics.

Bourgeat even suggested the Winter Games be postponed a year so athletes will feel safer.

''I'm worried and even frightened,' Bourgeat said. ''I'm afraid of flying.''

Borugeat's views seem to be in the minority, though, among the about two dozen athletes contacted by The Associated Press around the world.

While they are skittish, they are still coming.

''Naturally, there are some concerns, but I've heard that security will be tightened and there's nothing we can do about it other than not go -- and I don't think that's the right response,'' Japanese bobsledder Hiroshi Suzuki said.

''If it is held, I am going,'' said Norway's Bente Skari, a two-time Nordic skiing World Cup winner. ''I think if they are going to have it, it means it is safe. I'm not absolutely sure it will be held, but I am preparing as if it will.''

The games indeed will be held, both Salt Lake officials and the International Olympic Committee repeatedly have said. There are no contingency plans for canceling the Olympics, and plans have even been made to fly athletes in on special charters should the world's air transport system be in turmoil at the time.

''The circumstances that suggest you couldn't go forward with the games are unthinkable in my view,'' SLOC president Mitt Romney said. ''You proceed with the games almost regardless of the turbulence.''

Romney is trying to calm athletes' fears by pointing to the more than $300 million being spent to protect athletes and fans at the Winter Olympics, nearly triple what was spent in Atlanta for much bigger Summer Games in 1996.

Unlike the bloody history of the Summer Olympics, there has never been a terrorist attack at the Winter Olympics. To make sure it won't happen three months from now, thousands of police, federal agents and national guardsmen will be on hand to carry out a security plan that was beefed up in the wake of Sept. 11.

Most American athletes say they are comfortable with plans to ensure their safety. The foreigners who make up the bulk of the athletes at the games, however, have been harder to convince, largely because they must travel overseas to get to Utah.

''If there is war, it's no fun to go there,'' said Magdalena Forsberg, the Swedish women's biathlon great. ''But it's up to the IOC to decide.''

Romney sent out a letter to sports officials from all competing nations last month outlining security plans. But he complained this week that he has not been allowed access to athletes to press his point that the Olympics are safe.

Romney wanted to send an e-mail to athletes, but was told it wasn't proper protocol. After speaking with IOC president Jacques Rogge this week, he plans to put out a newsletter at various World Cup competitions so athletes can read about security plans.

''I recognize the need to get the word to the athletes themselves,'' Romney said. ''The Olympics is the pinnacle of their sporting existence, and it is for these athletes that I am absolutely committed to holding games regardless of what the world throws at us.''

Coomber, Britain's best hope for an Olympic medal, said most of her skeleton teammates are in the military and don't feel threatened by the Olympics.

She admitted, though, that other athletes might not be so sure.

''I can understand if some people want to pull out,'' Coomber said. ''There's nothing wrong with them pulling out -- they probably wouldn't be able to perform to their full ability anyway.''

That's not likely to happen, though, especially because the Olympics are so big and only every four years.

''I would be utterly surprised if anyone would do so,'' said Manuela Valvoda, deputy secretary general of the Austrian Olympic Committee. ''Athletes have prepared for a long time and it's the biggest challenge for them. So I cannot imagine anyone would stay away.''

For many athletes, too, there's a secondary reason to go to the Olympics. They won't just be competing, but also making a stand.

''We would let the terrorists win if the Olympics doesn't go as planned,'' said Sondral, the Norwegian speedskater. ''The terrorists must not be allowed to change our lives. If we do, then they have achieved the effect they wanted.''



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