Mark Story: Olympics security concerns in Sochi hit close to home for Tom Hammond

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014 

Mitt Romney — CEO of the group that organized the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — said Friday on The Today Show he has never seen an Olympics targeted with so many specific terrorist threats as the Games that will begin next month in Sochi, Russia.

Here in Lexington, there is at least one person for whom such talk hits real close to home. Tom Hammond, the veteran NBC sportscaster, is again slated to work in the high-profile role as play-by-play announcer for the figure skating events in Sochi.

It will be the fourth straight Winter Olympics Hammond has served in that capacity. This will be the 11th Olympics overall that Hammond has covered for NBC.

"Certainly, with the security concerns, there's an extra dimension to this one," Hammond said last week. "There have been other Olympics I've worked, Athens (2004 Summer) comes to mind, Salt Lake City after 9/11, where there was attention before the Games on security threats. But I don't ever remember anything quite to this level."

Last summer, Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader often referred to as "Russia's Bin Laden," implored Islamist fighters in the restive North Caucasus region of Russia to target the Olympics in Sochi. In December, two men from North Caucasus carried out a bombing in the city of Volgograd that killed 34 people.

Volgograd is considered the "northeast gateway" to Sochi.

The goal is to embarrass Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has staked his reputation on holding a successful Winter Olympics. According to media reports, Russia will have 30,000 police and interior ministry troops in and around Sochi to protect the Games.

"I know from working past events in Russia, they are pretty good at locking things down," Hammond said.

If the focus in Sochi actually gets to be on sports, Hammond figures to have some of the Games' more compelling stories to tell. The U.S. ice dancing pair of Meryl Davis and Charlie White is favored to give the United States its first-ever gold medal in that event.

For the first time, Olympic figure skating will include, à la Olympic gymnastics, competition for team medals.

In the marquee attraction of women's figure skating, defending gold medalist Kim Yuna of South Korea and her archrival, 2010 silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan, are back for another showdown. Sublimely named American teenager Gracie Gold, 18, is thought to be the top U.S. medal hope.

Hammond acknowledges that when he was first asked by NBC before the 2002 Games to be the play-by-play voice of Olympic figure skating he was skeptical.

"Then the first practice I went to, I saw the skaters plant their toe pick in the ice and hurl themselves in the air. I realized there is a lot of athleticism in this sport, it's not all froufrou," he said.

Because of the immense global popularity of Olympic women's figure skating, Hammond said he believes there is more pressure on skaters going for the gold medal than there is on athletes in any other sporting event.

"Think about it, they have trained their whole lives for this one moment. In some cases, you'll get two Olympics, but in most cases it's one-and-done," Hammond said. "You are out there all by yourself, there's no left tackle to protect your back. It's all on you, and you are in front of the whole world."

Hammond, 69, is already scheduled to work for NBC in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The focus on possible acts of terrorism and the resulting security concerns are obviously not the backdrops that the former WLEX-TV sports anchor would have chosen for what could be his last Winter Olympics as an announcer.

"I'm certainly aware that is a possibility, but that is not the way I'm approaching this," Hammond said. "I'm at a stage in my career where, while I'm not ready for things to end, I certainly am trying to make sure I enjoy and embrace these experiences."

Romney told The Today Show Friday that he believes the actual event venues in Sochi and the areas where the athletes are housed will be secure.

"The 'hard sites' will be safe. The athletes will be safe. Spectators, when they are in the venues, will be safe," Romney said. "It's the 'soft places' you can't be 100 percent certain will be entirely safe. But my guess is the Russians have done everything humanly possible to protect the Games."

Hammond said he is hearing a similar message from his bosses at NBC. "What they've told us is that they think the interior core of the Olympics will be secure," he said. "That's what we're all counting on."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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