February 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

High costs can't keep some families of Olympians home

Olympic speed skater Jessica Smith's mom, Reina, with son Travis and husband Rick, holds up Jessica's first pair of skates.Olympic speed skater Jessica Smith's mom Reina, brother Travis and father Rick, all of Melvindale, will make the trip to Sochi, Russia.CAPTION INFORMATION: (l-r) Mother Reina Smith, brother Travis Smith, 16, and father Rick Smith with some of United States Olympic speedskater Jessica Smith, 30 trophies. Mother Reina Smith, father Rick Smith, as well as brother Travis Smith, 16, of United States Olympic speedskater Jessica Smith, 30 who will compete in Sochi, at their home in Melvindale, Michigan on January 31, 2014. (Image by Daniel Mears The Detroit News ) (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Rick Smith is confident that when his daughter, speed skater Jessica Smith, competes in the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter short track races in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, she’s going to blast past her competition.

“I know my daughter and I know what’s going to happen,” said the Melvindale truck driver. “She’s going to get a medal.”

It’s those high hopes, and a lifetime of supporting his child in her dreams, that has led Smith and his family to spend $32,000 to visit Sochi this week for Jessica’s first Olympic appearance.

Even though friends, relatives and co-workers raised funds to help pay for travel costs, Smith still isn’t sure he has enough money. But that won’t stop him, his wife, Reina, and son Travis, 16, from being there when the Games open Friday.

“We’re going to go regardless,” Smith said.

Beside high costs, the remote location and other factors are making it especially challenging for the families of Olympians to see their loved ones compete in person at the Games.

When faced with the price, the red tape and a shortage of hotel rooms, some have reluctantly decided to stay home. Representatives from the United States Olympic Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Although Steven Rookard and his wife, Julie, could find flights to Sochi to watch his sister, Woodhaven speed skater Jilleanne Rookard, their travel agent told the couple hotel rooms were sold out.

“When we were checking six to eight months ago, the travel agent told us that there were literally no rooms left,” said Steven Rookard, of Mount Pleasant. “Without having a hotel room, it made it pointless to get a flight.”

Rookard’s family accompanied her when she competed four years ago in Vancouver, an experience her brother wanted to repeat this year in Russia.

“It’s exciting, but a little bit sad that we can’t go over there and share the experience with her,” her brother said. “We’re going to try and catch her on TV. Unfortunately, the coverage for her sport isn’t at the best time.”

The Russian government is spending an estimated $51 billion in Sochi to produce the Winter Games, which would make them the most expensive Olympics in history.

Ticket sales appear soft for the Olympics. As of two weeks ago, Russia’s Olympic organizing committee said 30 percent of 1.1 million tickets remained unsold, according to Bloomberg News. Despite Russia’s building binge around Sochi, a shortage of hotel rooms has caused prices to jump 121 percent for the games, Bloomberg reports.

At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, 97 percent of the 1.49 million tickets were sold.

Anbritt Stengele, owner and president of the Sports Traveler travel agency in Chicago, said interest in traveling to Sochi started out strong but waned quickly. Hotels cost between $400 and $700 a night, and very few rooms were available to begin with, she says.

The company, which specializes in travel packages to major sporting events, has sold just 50 travel packages, compared with 350 for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

“There are no direct flights from the States and a lack of four- and five-star properties — couple that with the terrorism warnings from the State Department — and it’s a tough sell for us,” said Stengele. “Then, almost immediately after we started selling the packages, we started hearing the anti-gay rhetoric coming out of Russia. That was probably our second hurdle after the cost and the lodgings.”

Last June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors, making it a crime to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in public. The uproar over the law, as well as criticism of Russia’s human rights record, has led a number of Western political leaders to shun the Olympics.

Security also is a concern for those attending the games.

On Jan. 10, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Sochi, citing concerns over two suicide bombings last year targeting public transportation in Volgograd, 600 miles from the Olympic village.

“Large-scale public events such as the Olympics present an attractive target for terrorists, and the U.S. government continues to monitor reported threats of potential terrorist attacks in Sochi or in Russia in general,” the travel warning said.

Russia has said it is deploying more than 50,000 police and soldiers to guard the Olympics.

“I don’t have time to worry about that and I’m not going to let anything stop me,” said Julie Sprague, mother of Clinton Township speed skater Kelly Gunther. “What’s going to happen is going to happen.”

Sprague is traveling to Sochi with her son and her daughter’s former speed skating coach. She estimates it will cost $30,000 for the three of them.

To defray the cost, the Lorain, Ohio, resident has sold commemorative T-shirts with her daughter’s photo and slogan, “Always believe,” and held other fundraisers.

“I’m about halfway there,” said Sprague, a single mom who worked two jobs to help pay for her daughter’s training when Gunther was growing up. “I’ll have to borrow the rest.”

Gunther will compete in Sochi four years after losing a spot in the Vancouver Games because of a technicality. A few months later, she fell during a race and nearly severed her foot from her leg. Now that her daughter has recovered and made this year’s U.S. squad, Sprague says nothing could keep her from watching her compete in person.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” said Sprague. “What she went through, there’s just absolutely no way I would miss this.”

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com
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Smith (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)
Rookard (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Gunther (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)
Olympic speed skater Jessica Smith's mom, Reina, with son Travis and ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)