After Faye Gulini crosses the line in snowboard cross this week in Sochi, the 21-year-old American plans to swap her secluded hotel for the chaos of the Olympic Village. Luckily, she knows where to find her compatriots.
Team USA’s 230 athletes, the most ever for a Winter Games, are keeping a low profile in Russia amid heightened security measures, so much so that the usual displays of American flags are missing from both the athletes’ living compound in Sochi and the Mountain Village, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Black Sea coast.
“I know where their portion is,” said Gulini, referring to the U.S. contingent while twisting the ends of her dyed-pink hair. “I don’t think I’ve seen a single flag.”
More than 6,000 athletes and delegates are scheduled to stay in Olympic compounds, where flags from 87 competing countries decorate scores of balconies and windows, standing out against the backdrop of the snowy Caucasus peaks. Unlike the 2012 games in London, where variants of the U.S. flag were omnipresent and Team USA wore their colors even on the subway, U.S. Olympians in Russia are being discouraged from wearing clothing that is distinctly American.
“We have let them know some people don’t consider Americans their favorites,” Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, told reporters in Sochi on Feb. 6. “If you wear non-American attire, it would attract less attention.”
Sochi is at the center of an unprecedented Russian security operation in which ticket holders are followed by an array of cameras linked to face-recognition software. Visitors must negotiate checkpoints and mesh fences before passing through armed guards, who stop some for a full-body scan.
Safety concerns intensified in December, after two suicide bombings killed more than 30 people in the southern city of Volgograd, an extension of Russia’s long-running battle with Islamist separatists across the North Caucasus region. President Vladimir Putin, seeking to ensure the success of the country’s first Winter Olympics, deployed 40,000 police and special services troops to seal off Sochi in January.
The lockdown starts with extra layers of checks at the airport, rebuilt for the games for $440 million. Terrorism concerns prompted the U.S. government last week to ban all liquids, gels and aerosols from carry-on luggage on flights between the U.S. and Russia. On Feb. 7, a man was arrested after trying to hijack a passenger plane from Ukraine to Turkey and divert it to Sochi.
“The security is quite onerous but it’s for our own good,” Australian slopestyle skier Anna Segal said in an interview at the Mountain Village. “It does take a long time to get anything done, just even getting to the bottom of the gondola is a half-day mission.”
Seamus O’Connor, a 16-year-old American-born snowboarder competing for Ireland, hasn’t seen much of a U.S. presence in the Olympic Villages.
“The U.S guys haven’t put up any of their flags at the moment and I don’t know if they going to the duration of the games,” O’Connor, who qualifies for Ireland through his grandparents, said in an interview today at Rose Khutor Extreme Park. “Someone said something about them worrying about attention.”
The clampdown hasn’t damped the enthusiasm of U.S. supporters, though. As in past Games, there’s no shortage of flag-waving and cowbell-ringing by Americans during events. Some, such as downhill skier Travis Ganong’s mother, have been warmly embraced by announcers who interview relatives of athletes live during the competitions.
Still, U.S. athletes aren’t taking any chances, according to 29-year-old alpine skier Stacey Cook.
“You do see a lot of the countries putting their flags up in the village,” Cook said in an interview. “Our presence, we want to make it on the race hill, not in the village.”
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