Major events as soft targets

By Dr Will Jennings, Politics & International Relations

The distressing scenes in Boston provide a stark reminder of the threats that are attached to the staging major sporting events. Despite growth in the scale of security measures for events such as the Olympics and World Cup, their open format make ‘absolute security’ an impossibility – despite the obsession of some academics with the industrial-military complex that surround them – as the physical perimeters of events and the large public spaces associated with them are too large to enclose or provide blanket coverage of manpower to police. In Olympic Risks (2012, Palgrave Macmillan), I reflected that “…ceremonial and sporting events such as the Olympic torch relay and the marathon can prove difficult to police due to their open format, making them soft targets for attacks or disruption.” Indeed, this sort of incident is not without precedent in the U.S. During the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, a pipe bomb attack on Centennial Park by a domestic terrorist left two dead and a 111 injured. It had been hosting an open concert as part of the programme of cultural events for the Olympic Games.

“The wide spread of events and people across multiple venues means that the general public is exposed to security threats outside the relative safety of security checks and perimeter fencing at the main venues.” (Olympic Risks, Palgrave Macmillan).

The vulnerability of these sorts of ‘soft targets’ contrasts a great deal with the focus on security in highly secured, and often militarized spaces, such as the Olympic Park or large stadiums – as in the recent London Olympics. Winter Olympics suffer in particular from security vulnerabilities due to their physical geography – consisting of outdoor winter sports, held in the natural environment and covering large areas of land – and are highly challenging to police and other security agencies. For example, at the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics organizers opted for a surveillance and intelligence-led response to securing venues because of the impracticality of constructing perimeter fencing over mountainous terrain or using CCTV and other monitoring equipment that are unreliable in cold outdoor conditions.

With so little known about the attacks in Boston, it is important to be cautious in drawing any conclusions for future events – such as the upcoming London Marathon or Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, which inevitably will be a source of tension. There surely will be a growing realisation, however, that the hyperactive policing of the main sites of events such as the Olympic Games, is not a solution when faced with the near impossible job of securing ‘soft targets’. Large security presences do not solve the inherent vulnerability of these sorts of event to determined and callous attackers. While memories of the terror attack on the Olympic Village at Munich 1972 have left a lasting imprint on the strategies of major event organizers, the securing of soft targets is the great challenge for the 21st century, especially given the inevitable tension between the celebratory mood of those events and concerns over visible military or police presences on the streets in democratic societies.

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