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Soldier-athletes bound for Russia keep wary eye on threats

Feb. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Military athletes and coaches are heading to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, with a mixed sense of excitement and trepidation.

For Team USA bobsledder and Army intelligence officer Capt. Chris Fogt, the excitement comes with all the fanfare and competition on winter sports’ biggest stage, along with a chance to redeem his last Olympic foray, in the 2010 Olympics, when his four-man sled crashed on Vancouver’s deadly track.

But with dozens of people dead and wounded after a spasm of suicide bombings just half a day’s drive from Sochi, and extremist groups promising to target the Games, Fogt says it’s starting to feel like he’s heading back into a combat zone.

While he says he’s confident the Russians and U.S. Olympic Committee “will do everything they can to keep us safe,” the Iraq veteran says it’s hard going to Sochi without a better sense of what’s actually happening.

“In Iraq, you could listen to stuff or pull up a UAV feed — you have a good feel for what’s going on. Going to Russia, I feel a little blind. If I had access to SIPRNET right now, I’d probably feel much safer,” he says, referring to the military classified computer network.

And then there’s that whole no-weapon thing.

“It’s going to be a whole different ball game, not wearing a uniform, not carrying a weapon, but that’s not my job right now. I’m still a soldier, but I’m there as an athlete to compete. It’s going to be weird being in that kind of environment, having such a different role and focus.”

Luger Army Sgt. Matt Mortensen says he’s trying not to let anything distract him.

“I feel pretty good. But to be honest, I wouldn’t care if there was a nuclear threat in Sochi — I would still be going. This is my time. And that’s where I need to be.”

With all the attention on amping up security at Sochi, he says, “If anything I think it’s going to leave other parts of Russia vulnerable. Sochi is probably the safest place to be.”

Mostly he’s just worried about how his family and friends are fretting over all the worst-case scenarios.

“My parents, my grandmom and my girlfriend are all going. My mom in particular has had a hard time with all the chatter,” he says.

Assistant bobsled coach Army 1st Lt. Michael Kohn says he’s not sure what to think.

“We were kind of joking today that maybe the American media is blowing this up too much,” he says. “I don’t know. But as a coach, even if I was concerned, it wouldn’t be very smart of me to exude that around the athletes.”

With the final days counting down until opening ceremonies, he says everyone is trying to stay focused on their jobs and trust that security officials are doing theirs.

“Obviously the U.S Olympic Team and State Department feel OK, because we’re all still going. So, I’m just following their lead on it. For athletes in the village, I still feel pretty comfortable for where we’re going to be. It’s the outskirts — the train station, bus stops and other public places — that I feel bad for.”

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