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Editorial: Holding our breath over the Winter Olympics

Czech Republic's Roman Koudelka at the RusSki Gorki

Czech Republic's Roman Koudelka at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 6, 2014 in Rosa Khutor near Sochi. Credit: Getty Images / John MacDougall

The eyes of the world turn Friday to Sochi, Russia, and the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Many of those watching as the spectacle unfolds will harbor the same hope: that when the cauldron bearing the Olympic flame is lit, it doesn't blow up.

Such is the sad state of affairs in what has been the most scary and dispiriting run-up to an Olympic Games in history.

Mostly, that's due to the specter of terrorism. Fears spiked after Islamic separatist suicide bombers struck twice in Volgograd in December, killing 34 people. The U.S. government this week warned airlines flying into Russia that terrorists might attempt to hide explosives in toothpaste tubes in their luggage, then banned carry-on liquids and gels on those flights. The Russians are searching for several "black widows" -- potential suicide bombers from Chechnya. Some athletes are telling their families, who supported them and nurtured their dreams for years building to this moment, to stay home. Sochi itself is like a war zone, with tens of thousands of Russian security personnel on the ground, helicopters overhead, and two U.S. Navy warships off the coast in the Black Sea, ready for evacuations in case of an attack.

The kindling that fuels fears includes Russian President Vladimir Putin's long and brutal battle with Muslim separatists in nearby Chechnya and Dagestan, and last year's Boston Marathon bombing, allegedly carried out by brothers born in Chechnya. Add the Olympics' own history -- the Palestinian commando killers in Munich in 1972 and the bomb in Atlanta in 1996 -- and it's easy to see why ever-tighter security is the new normal. And that's sad: The Olympic rings have given way to the ring of steel.

Sochi has been beset by other problems as well. The record cost -- an obscene $51 billion -- includes accusations of massive kickbacks to Putin and his cronies. Reports abound of undrinkable water, unreliable electricity and unfinished hotel rooms. Stray dogs are being rounded up and shot as Putin tries to show Russia is a modern well-governed country, and worldwide protests continue over its anti-gay laws.

Lost are the athletes, the very reason for this biennial celebration. We ought to be talking about American Shaun White's quest for a third straight snowboarding gold medal, the hockey rivalries between the U.S. and Canadian men and women, and 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, the youngest American skier to be a World Cup champion. We should be toasting our locals -- lugers Aidan Kelly of West Islip and Matt Mortensen of Huntington Station, and skeleton slider John Daly of Smithtown.

It is often said the Olympic Games bring the world together, and Sochi indeed has united us in fear. And among the ideals espoused by Olympic officials are the notions of cooperation and brotherhood through sport. Sochi has succeeded there, too: U.S. and Russian security personnel are working in tandem like never before.

We hope the Olympics somehow are able to work their magic once again, and overcome the challenges facing them and the dread we now feel. Every Olympics is buffeted by pre-games worries. Then the competition begins and concerns melt away. We revel in the human drama and marvel at the grace, athleticism and artistry of the athletes.

But this year feels like something else. This time, we wonder: Will the joy really ever kick in? We hope it does.


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