Olympic security: a model for homeland security

There has been no shortage of reports in the last few months on the security preparations for the Athens Olympics in August this year. As the security budget rises, fears continue over the Greek authority's preparedness to deal with such a major event. The intricacies of planning for an Olympic Games are both complicated and challenging, which have become even more complex due to the ever-increasing threat of terrorism.

In early May, 100 days before the start of the Olympic Games in Athens, a bomb attack at a police station in Athens led to increased criticism of the Greek authorities' security capabilities. While the timing of this latest attack is significant, Greece has been quick to insist there is no connection between the blasts and the Olympic Games. The attack comes against a backdrop of heightened fears over international terrorism, but police say they are investigating local left-wing extremist groups, which have in the past planted bombs and carried out assassinations in Greece.

One group under the spotlight is Popular Struggle, which carried out a bomb attack in March and has threatened more violence. The motivation of such left-wing and anarchist groups is that they oppose the Olympics, viewing them as a capitalist bonanza. They have protested against the en masse arrival of Western security services in preparation for the Games.

Analysts fear that the vast profile of the Athens Olympic Games, the first to be held since the attacks on New York, Washington, DC, Bali, Casablanca and Madrid, could make Greece a prime target for terrorists. In response, Greece is staging an unprecedented security operation at the cost of EUR1 billion (US$1.18bn), with more than 45,000 security personnel guarding the Games throughout its duration.

Olympic security planning has been highly influenced by past experiences. During the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, in the early morning of 5 September, eight Palestinians broke into the Olympic village, killed two members of the Israeli team and took nine hostages. In an ensuing battle, all nine hostages were killed, as were five of the terrorists and one policeman. The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games were marred by an early morning blast in the Centennial Olympic Park. During a concert at the Global Village stage, a bomb exploded, killing two people and injuring 110. These incidents help to explain why the security of the 2004 Olympic Games is regarded by the Greeks as an exercise of national security.

The concentration of effort now required to produce an operational Olympic security plan is truly colossal. Planning for security begins years ahead of the Games - as indicated by the London 2012 bid committee, which is advertising for security and policing positions - and involves several hundred people. Such planning takes on a form that is not repeated in any other public event. Law enforcement and security experts are used to planning for large security tasks such as major sporting events, visits from heads of state and large-scale public meetings. However, the Olympic Games are 10 times larger than a major sporting final: they run over 16 days, are spread over various sites and require monitoring 24 hours a day. As one Olympic security official said: "For a law and enforcement agency, the Olympic operational period is 60 days, involving, in the case of Athens, 50,000 security personnel at peak times. Wars have been planned and executed in less time and with less people." 1

A security plan for the Olympic Games is directly related to the national defence of the host country. The majority of nations - such as the US, the UK and most other European countries - already have massive self-defence mechanisms, well-equipped and well-trained police and security services, and government agencies dedicated to keeping the country safe. National defence of countries in the 21st century increasingly requires protection against internal and external terrorist attack. Similarly, security operations for the Athens Olympics are in fact designed to defend against the very same thing. For the Greek authorities, not only will Athens 2004 test every contingency plan they have in place but it will also serve as a test of their national security capabilities. Therefore, it is the Greeks' responsibility to absorb and develop all the lessons learned from previous Games.

In the case of Sydney 2000, the security arrangements had a lasting impact on Australian national security. Prior to the Sydney Olympics, there already existed a well-rehearsed national anti-terrorist plan, which involved all agencies at state and federal level. In the build-up to the Games, many exercises were conducted to test the validity of security plans in an Olympic context, which included against the likelihood of chemical or biological attack. These exercises were the first such tests of Australia's preparedness, and highlighted the fact that Australia had deficiencies in their operational response. As a result, the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) formed and trained an additional anti-terrorist squadron. The country had a very limited capability to respond to a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident - this gap was closed by an intensive programme of training and equipment purchases involving the medical and public health response mechanism. These changes and improvements alone cost many millions of dollars but they made a tremendous contribution to Australia's capability to deal with present and future threats of global and domestic terrorism.2

There are more risks to a country such as Greece than to one holding an Olympic event in the centre of its mainland, accessible only by tightly controlled road and air routes. Greece's borders are very difficult to police. It boasts a huge coastline with hundreds of small ports and easily accessible beaches, and lies next to some relatively unstable countries. Geographically located at the crossroads of Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, and possessing Europe's longest coastline, Greece would seem an easy access point for terrorists.

During an Olympic Games, the world advances to the host country, bringing with tensions from other countries and regions. Some of the participating countries are politically or economically unstable. Others either have internal tensions or shelter active terrorist groups - this is particularly the case in regions such as Africa and the Middle East. So an international terrorist attack at an Olympic event is not simply an attack on the host country but also an attack aimed at the peoples and political agendas of other countries. To prepare for such an event, the host country pulls together all agencies dealing with national security under one roof to assess the risk to the Olympic Games.

Due to the enormity of an Olympic security operation it resembles a national security response. The preparations that a host country must implement and the investment placed in a security infrastructure for its Games will continue long after the mass event and may therefore contribute to the host nation's long-term national security capabilities. Such opportunities to strengthen national security should not be wasted. Furthermore, the co-operation between all agencies that is established during an Olympic Games is one that should be nurtured and extended to other national security exercises. This also relates to multilateral ties that are established during the security planning for an Olympic event. In the case of Athens, a multinational advisory body on security - including Israel, the US, Britain, Australia, and Russia - has been established to aid Greece with its security plans. Law enforcement and intelligence officials from Israel, Germany, Britain, and the US have been training their Greek counterparts in counter-terrorism. Such obvious multilateral co-ordination between countries and agencies should be extended on a permanent basis and not merely be a relationship that is called upon in pressurised situations.

Olympic and homeland security both require co-ordination between all public-sector disciplines, all levels of government and the private sector. Both require an effective way to share information that is timely, accurate, usable and secure and they both require a way to determine how best to allocate and share resources.

Some of the paramount needs that should be considered in national security and Olympic planning are to:

  • establish clear mission targets;
  • define operational concepts;
  • engage in thorough planning;
  • encourage interagency co-operation and joint training;
  • involve and liaise with the private sector;
  • agree on clear definition of roles and responsibilities;
  • manage conflict;
  • characterise risk parameters;
  • target investment, particularly towards joint information and communication systems, to manage the intelligence and share its product;
  • promote international co-operation to target terrorist groups and track funding; and
  • seek public acceptance of policies to protect the country.3
  • After the Games, if used constructively, the enormous security investment could hugely influence Greece's national security and contribute greatly to its future counter-terrorist objectives. But one must wait and see if such investment and preparation is able to guard the 2004 Olympics from terrorist attack.

    Rebecca Cox is the co-ordinator of RUSI's Homeland Security & Resilience Programme


    1. Peter J Ryan, "Olympic Security: The Relevance to Homeland Security". Speech given at The Oquirrh Institute Olympic Security Review Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, 24-25 October 2002. Available at: www.oquirrhinstitute.org/s-ryan.html. p2.
    2. Ibid, p3.
    3. Ibid, pp4-5.

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