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Too Far, Too Complicated: Why Some Families Will Sit Out Sochi

Security personnel sit in the back of a truck outside the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi. Security concerns are one reason why many U.S. fans and family are not going to this year's games.
David J. Phillip
Security personnel sit in the back of a truck outside the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi. Security concerns are one reason why many U.S. fans and family are not going to this year's games.

On a frigid afternoon, Jack Burke is coaching young skiers in a field in Saranac Lake, N.Y. His son Tim — who shoots and skis as part of the U.S. biathlon team — got his start training here. Now, Tim is off to Sochi to compete, but Jack and his whole family are staying home, missing the games for the first time since Tim's first Olympics in 2006.

"The uncertainty certainly did weigh into it," says Jack. "The cost was substantial, and costs seemed to be changing weekly."

For a lot of families of athletes, the Winter Olympics are a kind of pilgrimage — they've made the trip to Salt Lake and Turin and Vancouver. But this year, it's different: more costly, more nerve-wracking.

There's a lot of anxiety about safety and the threat of terrorism in Russia: The U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory for Americans traveling to the games, and some athletes in the U.S. have been urging family members to stay home. But safety fears are only the latest complication for families debating whether to make the trip to Sochi.

Ed Mazdzer's son Chris is a luge racer, riding one of those superfast sleds. Because Chris is a serious medal contender, Ed and his family are going to Russia. But the decision wasn't easy.

"It's $18,000 for four of us in our family," he says, pointing out that it's probably four times as expensive as going to Vancouver four years ago.

Marty Lawthers, Chris' mom, says the family had to borrow against their life insurance policy to pay for the trip. She says that along with the cost of travel and hotels came the expense and headache of dealing with Russian bureaucracy.

"I think the whole visa process was just crazy — just crazy," she says. "There are so many fingers in the pie in this particular event."

Even families who've paid thousands of dollars say they've had their reservations changed or canceled, over and over.

"As recently as three weeks ago, we got an email from the organizers saying they were moving us again," says Helen Demong, the mother of Nordic combined skiing gold medalist Bill Demong.

She says their hotel rooms, which were reserved and paid for months in advance, keep evaporating: "That particular hotel was run by a Russian businessman, and he had double-booked it and he had no rooms set aside for us."

It's hard to say how many American families are opting out because of these hurdles. Jack Burke says he thinks a lot of Olympics fans are also turned off by the impression that Sochi is remote from the rest of Russia, and just isn't known to Americans as a must-see destination.

"We felt that if we went to Russia, it would strictly [be] watching events, and experiencing the local culture or getting around would probably be limited," Burke says.

Everyone interviewed for this story — those going to Sochi and those watching from home on TV — says worries about security and terrorism are constantly in the back of their minds. Helen Demong says these games will be nerve-wracking, especially after the Vancouver Games, which felt almost like a hometown Winter Olympics

"Absolutely we'll be more cautious," she says. "But we're going to be surrounded by family and friends, and I'm sure we're going to raise a glass of Russian vodka, and we are going to celebrate."

Demong points out that there were similar fears about security before the Salt Lake Games, which followed just five months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those games went off without a hitch, and she's hoping Sochi will turn out the same.

Copyright 2014 NCPR

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.