Two-time Olympian Stan Dunklee practically gave up trying to watch his daughter compete at the upcoming Winter Olympics in southern Russia.
First, it cost too much at about $12,000 per person for four nights. Then, navigating Iron Curtain-like bureaucracy tested the patience of this can-do Vermonter.
Before being issued a Russian visa, Americans must provide proof they have event tickets, spectator passes, hotel rooms and health insurance.
The most expensive Games in history at a reported $50 billion have become the most confounding for American parents, the very people who have supplied the funds and emotional support to fuel their children’s Olympic passions.
“One thing about the Olympics: It’s all about money,” said Dunklee, of Barton, Vt. “The rest of it is fluff.”
Dunklee, who competed in cross-country skiing at the 1976 and 1980 Winter Olympics, was lucky in one aspect. Daughter Susan Dunklee earned her Olympic berth in the biathlon last year. The father had enough time to find a reasonably priced eight-room accommodation that he is sharing with parents of other Olympians.
But because many of the U.S. teams are named about three weeks before Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7, some parents have scrambled to make travel arrangements.
Sharon and Dean Cook of the Eastern Sierra town of Loyalton had to buy airline and event tickets and pay for hotel rooms before they knew daughter Stacey had made the alpine ski team.
“It’s crazy with all capitals,” said Sharon Cook, who also paid for travel insurance in case her daughter didn’t make it.
Here is but one example of how the system has left them frazzled:
Skiers get two complimentary tickets that they can give to their parents. But the Cooks still needed to buy event tickets to get a visa to enter the country. They wouldn’t have had enough time to process the paperwork through the Russian embassy had they waited until the complimentary tickets arrived after the alpine team is named Sunday.
The parents decided to spend thousands because Stacey Cook, of Mammoth Lakes, is expected to make her third Olympic team. The family made a similar decision before the 2010 Olympics in British Columbia.
But the day before the couple departed, Stacey Cook suffered a horrific crash in a training run and had to be airlifted to a hospital. She eventually returned to finish 11th in the downhill.
The issue of money led luger Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake, N.Y., to discourage his family from going to Sochi.
“He said, ‘Don’t come,’” father Edward Mazdzer recalled. “But it’s in the parental contract. Your kid goes off to the Olympics, you’d better get yourself there.”
Luger Matt Mortenson also worried about his family’s budget just to watch him jet down an icy chute for what seems like a New York minute.
“The first price was $8,000 without airfare,” Mortenson said. “You can get a small-sized used car for that amount.”
Travel visas are just one of the added wrinkles for Americans heading to Sochi. Another is securing “validated” spectator passes to gain access to Olympic venues. Russian organizers created the spectator passes as an added level of security in a dangerous part of the world.
Security factored into Monterey bobsledder Nick Cunningham’s reasons for wanting his parents to stay home.
“You can throw a rock and hit Chechnya,” he said of a breakaway Russian republic east of Sochi. “I would feel better if they were in Monterey.”
Tim and Wendy Cunningham decided not to go although they had arranged their lives to attend almost all of their son’s track meets and football games. They rise at 3:30 a.m. to follow his bobsled races in Europe on the Internet.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Wendy said.
It has been 20 years since the International Olympic Committee staged the Games in such a far-flung locale when it was held in Lillehammer, Norway. Sochi is nestled between the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains in a subtropical zone that borders the Republic of Georgia.
Travel issues led Washington cross-country skier Sadie Bjornsen to insist parents Tom and Mary Bjornsen not go to Sochi even though her brother Erik also was named to the Olympic team Wednesday. Instead, the parents are attending the final World Cup race before the Olympics in Italy.
“They’ve never left North America yet,” Bjornsen said from the Czech Republic. “Sochi would not be the place to start.”
Because Sochi developed into a major resort almost overnight, it has limited hotel space compared with the previous three Olympics in Salt Lake City, Turin, Italy, and Vancouver. U.S. Figure Skating official Ramsey Baker told Sports Business Journal last year his group had trouble finding accommodations for athletes’ families.
“In Vancouver, people were able to figure it out on their own,” Baker said. “In Sochi, they can’t figure it out.”
That’s what has bothered Edward Mazdzer, a neurologist who also attended the Vancouver Games to watch son Chris in the luge.
“We practically had zero help from the people who every four years trot off to these various venues and go to the Olympics,” he said of officials of the respective national governing bodies and the U.S. Olympic Committee. “It’s not there. It’s find your way and good luck.”
The sporting organizations, however, aren’t in the travel business so they don’t have the mechanism to provide much help other than refer family members to their providers. A recent check for prices through the U.S. Olympic Committee’s official hospitality tour agency, CoSport, showed rooms at three-star hotels cost about $400 a night.
Some enterprising athletes started online fundraising campaigns to offset family expenses in what amounts to a 21st century bake sale. Short track speedskating star Jessica Smith of Melvindale, Mich., created such a site for her parents, a truck driver and a barber. She estimated costs could run as high as $40,000.
“It’s a cruel recognition of what this all about,” said Dunklee, the two-time Olympian from Vermont. “Your kid qualifies, and you’re put in that limbo land: What’s this worth to me?”
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