Mac Engel

February 5, 2014

As Winter Olympics begin, the world is a much scarier place

The Cold War is over, but our paranoia is directed at other enemies today.

The Olympics became a target long before office high-rises in Manhattan, a train in Madrid, a tube in London, a church in Fort Worth, a movie theater in Denver, a shopping mall in Maryland and an elementary school in Connecticut.

After so much violence, our fear of something terrible happening in Sochi, Russia, over the next 18 days is justified. But we have similar trepidation about going to the neighborhood grocery store to buy a gallon of milk.

Beginning Friday, this resort town will host Russia’s first Olympics since the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow was boycotted. Back then, the bad guys were the communists.

Thirty years later, the Cold War is over, and the U.S. and Russia have a “friendship” led by a pair of leaders we could not have conceived in 1980: an African-American president and a former KGB agent who went on a “perestroika” power trip that former U.S.S.R. leaders Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Andropov could never have imagined.

In 1980, we knew where the bad guys lived. Today, we’re pretty sure the bad guys could be living down the street. We are more paranoid than ever, scared to leave the living room. We sadly accept that, in theory, safety is often more of a mirage than a reality.

There is not much we can do other than “be smart” — whatever that means — and hope nothing happens.

We will all hold our breath for the next 18 days during the Winter Games, hoping that nothing will happen and all this paranoia is wasted energy.

“I don’t think about it too much but sometimes [fear] pops into your mind,” said Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen, who will be making the trip to Russia to play for Team Finland. “It’s something that is everywhere now, and it’s a reality of today’s world. You just have to push it aside. It’s just the world we live in.”

Fear and paranoia before the Olympics Games are not necessarily a new thing.

On a personal note, I was assigned, at the last minute, to cover the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. Fearing violence, I did not want to go.

That summer, terrorism was considered to be a real threat given the proximity between Athens and the “known terrorist” countries in the Middle East. The USA basketball roster was loaded with A-list no-shows who bailed out of fear. Many venues in Athens were only half-filled because some people were too scared to make the trip.

In the end, nothing happened and it remains the single most memorable professional experience of my career.

Today, my spouse is working in Sochi — and the whole thing makes me nervous.

Much like in 1980 when we were all paranoid about the Soviets, we now are scared of terrorists — black widows, angry Chechens and other extremists, who want to politicize their beliefs by blowing up things, collateral damage be damned.

Much of our fears are legitimate, and some of them are ignorance fueled by media reports, and our own overactive imaginations.

“To me, the thing with security is overblown,” Stars defenseman Sergei Gonchar told me. Gonchar was born in the Soviet Union, and returns to Russia every year. “Remember, before the Summer Olympics in London [in 2010], we were afraid something was going to happen.

“A lot of people are afraid, and it’s the way it is now. It can happen anywhere. For some reason, Russia is being talked about a lot of times because they think it’s going to happen again and again. It’s sad people think about Russia like it’s always happening there.

“They are doing a lot of things to make sure it’s going to be secure, and I am sure it’s going to be fine. The country is not the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Neither is the world.

Communism may be gone from Russia, but this threat is far worse because it’s everywhere. It must be taken seriously.

As with Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Games, the Olympics often has been used as a political platform. When the terrorist group Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games, the Olympics became a target, too.

The difference now is every place is a target. The only thing we can do is “be smart” — and hope nothing happens.

Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog at

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