RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With just a week to go before the winter Olympics begin in Sochi, 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 those heading to the games. And some American athletes have been urging their own family members to stay home. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, concern over safety is only the latest complication for families debating whether to make the trip to Russia.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: On a frigid afternoon, Jack Burke is coaching young skiers in a field in Saranac Lake, New York. 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 - his whole family - they're staying home, missing the games for the first time since Tim's first Olympics in 2006.
JACK BURKE: The uncertainty certainly did weigh into it. And the cost - the cost was substantial. And cost seemed to be changing weekly.
MANN: For a lot athlete families, the Winter Olympics are a kind of pilgrimage. They've made the trip to Salt Lake, Turin and Vancouver. But this year with Sochi it's different - more costly, more nerve-wracking. Ed Mazdzer's son Chris is a luge racer, riding one of those super-fast sleds. Because Chris is a serious medal contender, Ed and his family are going to Russia, but the decision wasn't easy.
ED MAZDZER: It's $18,000 for four of us in our family.
MANN: That's kind of a big nut. Is that twice as expensive as Vancouver? Is it...
MAZDZER: Probably four times.
MANN: Marty Lawthers, Chris Mazdzer's mom, says the family had to borrow against their life insurance policy to pay for the trip. Along with the cost of travel and hotels, she says, came the expense and headache of dealing with the Russian bureaucracy.
MARTY LAWTHERS: I think the whole visa process was crazy. Just crazy. There are so many fingers in the pie in this particular event.
MANN: Even families who've paid thousands of dollars say they've had their reservations changed or canceled over and over.
HELEN DEMONG: As recently as three weeks ago, we got an email from the organizers saying they were moving us again.
MANN: Helen Demong is the mom of Olympic gold medalist Bill Demong, whose sport - Nordic combined - combines long distance ski jumping and cross-country skiing. She says their hotel rooms, reserved and paid for months in advance, keep evaporating.
DEMONG: That particular hotel was run by Russian businessman and he had double-booked it and he had no rooms set aside for us.
MANN: It's hard to say how many American families are opting out because of these hurdles. Jack Burke, who is staying home, says he thinks a lot of Olympic fans are also turned off by the impression that Sochi is remote from the rest of Russia and just isn't a known to Americans as a must-see destination.
BURKE: We felt that if we went to Russia, it would strictly be watching events and experiencing the local culture and getting around would probably be limited.
MANN: Everyone interviewed for this story - those going to Sochi and those watching from home on TV - said worries about security and terrorism are constantly in the backs of their minds, especially after Vancouver four years ago, which felt almost like a home-town Winter Olympics, Helen Demong says these games will be nerve-wracking.
DEMONG: Absolutely we'll be more cautious. But we're going to be surrounded by families and friends and I'm sure we are going to raise a glass of Russian vodka and we are going to celebrate.
MANN: Demong points out that there were similar fears about security before the Salt Lake Winter Games, which followed just five months after the 9/11 terror attacks. Those games went off without a hitch and Demong is hoping Sochi will turn out the same. For NPR News I'm Brian Mann in Saranac Lake, New York.
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