Two Buffalonians are gearing up for a trip to Sochi, even in the midst of security concerns.
BUFFALO - The idea spawned where most crazy ideas do.
At the bar.
"'Wouldn't the Winter Olympics be cool?'" Stephen Arlington recalls telling his lifelong friend, Tom O'Connor, as they watched a soccer game at Mes Que in North Buffalo during the summer of 2012. Arlington had just returned from the London Olympics, and he didn't want that to be his last trip. "It's a long ways away, but let's think about it."
Almost immediately, this nonchalant bar conversation transformed into a serious plan. Arlington and O'Connor soon gave notice to their employers for vacation in February 2014, even though they had no clue where the Olympic Games would even be held. When they learned Sochi would host, they wasted no time booking flights, purchasing tickets and accumulating as much red-white-and-blue "USA" gear as humanly possible.
"We were serious right from the get-go," O'Connor said.
And they're still serious— even though concerns about possible terrorist threats have increased in recent days. This weekend, a video surfaced from a terrorist organization warning of a threat in Sochi. On Monday, multiple media outlets reported that Russian officials are investigating the possibility of a suspected suicide bomber infiltrating security.
Earlier this month, the State Department issued a warning for American tourists planning to make the trip. Congressman Brian Higgins, a Western New York Democrat who serves on a House subcommittee for counter-terrorism, told 2 On Your Side on Monday that Russian officials must collaborate with the United States to maximize security.
"In the post-9/11 era, you're never going to be able to eliminate a terrorist threat," Higgins said. "I think what Russia needs to do is recognize that this is an international event that will showcase Russia, showcase Sochi, showcase the Russian culture… and they must embrace the United States and other countries who obviously have a security interest there."
Arlington and O'Connor said they'll certainly keep the security threat in mind, but they note that it won't adjust their travel schedule. They're set to fly out of Toronto on Feb. 5, at which point they'll have a layover in Istanbul before finally reaching Russia.
"I'm reading the news like everyone else, but it's something I can't really control," O'Connor said. "So all I'm thinking about is having a great time and going to the Olympics."
The waves of journalists heading to Sochi also have heightened security concerns. Richard Deitsch, a University at Buffalo graduate covering the Olympics for Sports Illustrated, said staff members have met much more frequently this year to discuss security and contingency plans. Deitsch said Sports Illustrated will send about thirty staff members.
"It feels like it's going to be a bit of a nerve-wracking Olympics, just because there has been so much bad news coming out of that part of the world," said Deitsch, who has covered six previous Olympic Games. "For Sochi, there are definitely concerns."
O'Connor and Arlington will stay through the entire duration of the Olympics, which required them to use all of their vacation and sick days from work. O'Connor has never attended the Olympics, but Arlington will be making his second trip after visiting London in 2012. The two lifelong friends, who grew up down the street from each other in Amherst, even created pins with both "Buffalo, NY" and "United States" printed on them. They plan to pass the pins out to anyone who'll take them, with the goal of creating a lasting Buffalo impression overseas.
The two friends said they've communicated in an online community with other Olympic travelers from many different countries, but they've yet to find anyone else from the Buffalo area. They haven't packed yet, but they're at least brushing up on their Russian geography. And they have a new language to learn, too, even though they're hardly fluent. At least they've both learned how to say spasiba, which means "thank you" in Russian.
That may come in handy.
"When in doubt, I'm going to thank everyone," O'Connor said.