MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — Bob Costas and Al Michaels don’t plan to stay home because of security concerns at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and neither do two dozen Ball State University student journalists.
The students say danger comes with the territory, and they note that it lurks around every corner nowadays, as evidenced by the recent fatal shooting on the campus of Purdue University.
Closer to home, when there was a report of a gunman on the campus of BSU, student journalist Zach Huffman didn’t “shelter in place.”
“When a suspected shooter was on Ball State’s campus, I saw the majority of us standing directly outside the building getting information and reporting what we had,” says Huffman, a junior telecommunications news track and business administration major from Indianapolis. “We were potentially putting our lives in danger, but we were being journalists.”
Huffman, one of two dozen Ball State students who have created a news agency to report at the Winter Games, will be a broadcast reporter while in the Russian city, The Star Press reported.
A series of suicide bombings in southern Russia, likely set off by Chechen rebels who have previously threatened the Games, have raised concerns about the potential for a terrorist attack either in or around Sochi. The level of cooperation from the Russian government on intelligence issues has also come under question from U.S. lawmakers.
Some have also worried whether the concentration of police and intelligence forces around Olympic venues will create areas of vulnerability elsewhere.
“With this opportunity we don’t represent ourselves as students, but as journalists,” Huffman told The Star Press via email. “It is our job to report no matter what the situation is, and that is what the professional world of journalism entails.”
Large-scale public events such as the Olympics present an attractive target for terrorists, like the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, the site of a terrorist bomb attack, the U.S. Department of State reported in a recent travel alert.
Sochi is about 200 miles from Chechnya, and about 250 miles from Dagestan, the agency reported. Less than 10 miles to its south, Sochi is bordered by the disputed territory of Abkhazia, which has witnessed its own share of extremist violence.
“As for security, that’s Ball State’s No. 1 priority with us attending,” said Ashley Cox, another BSU student making the trip. “We have daily check-ins and won’t be going anywhere alone. We’re all confident in the security that Russia has implemented to stop the terrorists. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has a lot to lose if these go badly, so I think he’s going to ensure that we are all safe and happily enjoying his country.”
Former U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who served as CEO for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, said during a recent appearance on NBC’s “Today” show he would feel comfortable sending his family to the Winter Olympics in Sochi despite security concerns that seem to be mounting by the day.
“There’s never been a games I know of that have been so targeted for specific threats as you’re seeing in Sochi,” Romney said. “At the same time, the level of security preparations appears to be at an unprecedented level. So I think people can recognize that the hard sites will be safe. The athletes will be safe, spectators when they’re in the venues will be safe. But 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.”
The BSU students are staying on a cruise ship off the coast of Adler, the southernmost of four city districts of Sochi.
“Our work will come primarily from what sources we can find on the streets of Sochi, the Olympic Village and the mountain cluster,” Cox said. “Each of us has a spectator’s pass to enter the Olympic Village and we are getting day passes for the media center. Many of the writers have established relationships with the athletes in the past few months, so hopefully they will make themselves available for interviews while we are there, too.”
Ryan Sparrow, project director and a journalism instructor, notes Ball State is not a novice at Olympic news reporting.
“BSU at the Games” made its debut at the London 2012 Olympics. More than 250 student-produced stories, news graphics, photos and videos were featured in news outlets including the Huffington Post, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune.
Nobody is backing out, Sparrow said.
“I think the only thing the news has done is made it that much more important that we have a really strong security plan in place, and that students realize this isn’t just a fun vacation trip but work,” he said. “Something about Russia makes things seem even scarier because of our past history with the Soviet Union, but I think things are going to be fine.”
The Ball State contingent, including three faculty and a BSU alumnus who is the editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., arrives in Sochi Feb. 7 and will remain until the 15th.
“This will give the students a new perspective of the world,” Sparrow said.