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Column: Danger in Sochi, and an Olympics on edge

Wednesday - 1/29/2014, 7:40pm  ET

TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Columnist

The countdown to Sochi was supposed be joyous, a celebration of all things Russian and the Olympics, too.

Instead it's been nothing but a grim reminder that Olympic officials had no idea what they were getting when they bought into Vladimir Putin's visions of surf and snow and handed him a Winter Olympics to call his own.

Every day seems to bring a new threat or another warning. Every day strains the nerves more, to the point where some athletes are telling family and friends it's not worth the risk to go, even for the most important moment of their lives.

Suicide bombings a few hundred miles away. Threats of more to come in Sochi itself. A hardened militant group nearby with an immense hatred of Putin and Russia and little regard for human life.

And a general uneasiness that no matter how many billions they've spent, the Russians really aren't ready for this at all.

If the latest news that three so-called "black widows" intent on carrying out suicide bombings are believed to already be in Sochi isn't enough to put a damper on the fun and games, consider this:

The same Islamic militants who assassinated the Russian-backed leader of Chechnya -- the father of the current president -- in 2004 have not only have declared their intention to attack the games but demonstrated with his death that they have the creativity and means to do just that.

"There is precedence to this," warned Lt. Col. Robert Schaefer, a Green Beret who literally wrote the book about the brutal conflict in the North Caucasus region. "It's important to think about how (Chechen president Ramzan) Kadyrov's father was killed at a stadium rally. During construction at the stadium they buried two 155 mm artillery shells in the concrete below the VIP bleachers. Then they waited until the elder Kadyrov attended and they detonated it."

Think about that as you watch the opening ceremonies unfold in all their grandeur on television. Or when Shaun White attempts some flips, and the worst thing that seems possible is that he wipes out at the top of the half pipe.

Yes, Olympics have been a target of terrorists ever since the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes and team members in Munich. A lone wolf bombing in Atlanta killed one person in 1996, and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City were clouded by fears of the 9/11 attacks that had taken place just months earlier.

But never have the threats seemed so real as they do in Putin's playground by the Black Sea, just on the other side of the mountains from an area steeped in blood and years of conflict that include two recent wars between Russia and Chechnya unmatched for the brutality on both sides.

Already, militants have claimed responsibility for two bombings that killed 34 people in a train station and on a bus in Volgograd, about 400 miles from Sochi. One of their top leaders has called for his followers to "do their utmost to derail" the games, describing them as "satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors."

These aren't people used to making idle boasts. They've been fighting Russians for generations and are blamed for some of the most savage terrorism attacks in recent years, including a Moscow theater takeover in 2002 that ended in 170 deaths and a school siege two years later in North Caucasus where more than 300 died, many of them children, when Russian troops stormed the building.

And they roam not far from venues where the world's best ice and snow athletes will perform in front of television cameras beaming it all to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

"It doesn't take an expert to look at that region and say the Olympics will be such a large target that insurgents will not try to do something," said Schaefer, who will be in Sochi as a security analyst for NBC. "There has been an average of 10 to 15 attacks in North Caucasus every month in recent years. It's just now the press is paying more attention to it."

That's more than can be said about the IOC delegates who decide where every Olympics will go. They were won over in 2007 by a personal appearance by Putin, voting for his Olympics over Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria, after being assured that the coastal area of Sochi and the snow-capped mountains behind it would provide a spectacular backdrop for the games.

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