A Thousand Days and Counting: Planning for a Secure Olympic and Paralympic Games

Olympic StadiumEarly plans for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were ambitious and expensive. They called for a security budget of over a billion pounds, which included new state of the art control rooms across London and a complex, hi-tech biometric scheme for ticketing. The plans were drawn up by the Metropolitan Police, who had been asked to take the lead in making the Games safe. But as their ideas began to circulate through Whitehall, many in government began to get cold feet. Last year, it was decided that the Home Office should step in to review and, if necessary, re-write the plans. They would also take over the lead role from the police. 

A recipe for disaster, some might argue - though a recent inspection by the International Olympic Committee found the plans to be on target and working. Buildings are being constructed to be extra resilient - bombproof in parts, for example. Power lines have been laid below ground and the tunnels checked before being sealed to ensure nothing untoward has been buried inside. Critical infrastructure which runs through the sites has been identified and made more secure - including an electricity substation and three huge pipes carrying vast quantities of sewage from North London. But there is much still to do in the next two and a half years, and with little flexibility in the timetable there are bound to be some setbacks along the road. The security risks are broad: terrorism, cyber attack, natural disaster, ticket fraud and pubic order problems all pose threats.

The Met blueprint still forms the basis of much that is in the latest security strategy. But gone are the ambitious hi-tech command and control and ticketing plans and with them the big budget, which has been halved to around £600 million. Gone too is the formal, at times militaristic language, replaced instead by a more colloquial style which is easily accessible to the public.

Three reasons lay behind the decision to put the Home Office in control. The first was the realisation that the Met did not have the political clout or power to access all available funding, or to commission on behalf of other bodies. It could not procure on behalf of the Department of Health or the Fire Service, for example. Secondly, there was a lack of appetite to use untested systems - such as large-scale biometric ticketing - at an event as massive as the Olympics; the government and the police did not want to risk experimenting with some of the new technologies suggested in the early police plans. Thirdly, security experts saw that much of what is needed to secure the Games is already in place as part of the day-to-day security of the UK, so vast extra costs for security should not be needed.

As Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison, the National Olympic Security Co-ordinator, explains:

When you're dealing with the biggest show on earth you work on tried and tested systems that have worked in the past. If there's a gap in capability you fill that gap, but we will start testing our security plan within two years, and to bring in something new in that time isn't a goer.

Assistant Commissioner Allison will run a National Olympic Co-ordination Centre using a control room that is already in preparation. His job is to organise the police response now and during the Games, accessing eleven other control rooms run by the eleven police forces that have some involvement in the Olympics in their areas. During the Games they will use the tried and tested Gold, Silver and Bronze setup in conjunction with other emergency services.

Lord West is the minister responsible for Olympic Security:

We already spend £12 billion a year on policing and by 2012 we'll be spending £3.5 billion on Counter Terrorism so we can lever the Olympic plans onto the back of this. If you go down the road of doing much more new technology the bill would go sky high.

Lord West admits there are still funding issues to iron out. Extra police are required in the new shopping centre near the main stadium during the Games - for which funding needs to be agreed. And there are still ongoing discussions about who pays for what once the Olympic Delivery Authority has finished construction and passes responsibility for the various venues on to other authorities. 

The 'Airwave' Boost

The change in the structure and hierarchy of the Olympic security planning team has smoothed the way for the Home Office to announce the commissioning of a boost to the capability of 'Airwave', the communications system used by police and emergency services such as fire and ambulance.[1] During the Olympics thousands more people than normal will need to access Airwave and a £39 million investment will enable this. The deal between the private manufacturers Airwave Solutions Ltd and the National Police Improvement Agency aims to give adequate time to train the new users and to ensure the network can be managed on the large scale anticipated if there is an incident during the Games.

Making Sport the Priority

The Home Office's 'London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Safety and Security Strategy' was published earlier this year, along with a summary leaflet entitled 'A Safe and Secure Games for All'.[2] At its core is the premise that the Olympics must be viewed as an event with security - not a security event with sport - just like all the other large scale events due in the summer of 2012 such as the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the Notting Hill Carnival, and regular football matches.

'Security is very firmly in hand' insists Lord West, 'but we want a light touch. I don't want a heavy police or military presence to ruin what would be a fantastic sporting event.'

Should the Conservatives win the next election it is expected that Baroness Neville Jones would become security minister. She says the Conservatives would review the extent and thoroughness of the Security Strategy:

The Safety and Security Strategy for the Games is a public document which has been explained to us by the Government. But we have not seen the Olympic specific Risk Assessment nor the Concept of Operations that will deliver the Strategy. Given our interest in the security preparations we have met some of the organisations involved in delivery. But from our position we cannot assess fully how well the Strategy is being delivered - we have only a partial insight.
Naturally, given the range of organisations involved and their different timetables, care must be taken to make sure there are no gaps in delivery. An important element is also assessing the significant and nation-wide policing requirements that will be needed over many months. This planning should include capacity to meet any increase in the threat level before or during the Games.


The rejection of biometric ticketing came in part through fear it would generate unacceptably long queues, or not work at all. Nine million people are expected to buy tickets, and many will be sold to groups for sponsors and schools which would make it impossible to capture the biometrics of the eventual ticket holder when the ticket was first sold. 

Tickets will be sold in the usual way, through credit card sales, many of which will take place on the Internet. That inevitably brings the risk of fraud. Cyberspace is largely unregulated, as a recent report for Which? Computing magazine pointed out.[3] The magazine's website quoted editor Sarah Kidner:

Criminals are limbering up for a spate of Olympic-related crime. Several websites are, amazingly, already promising tickets that don't exist. There needs to be much stronger regulation of this area to stop conmen running off with our money.

Tackling this though will apparently not add any great extra cost to the Olympic security budget. In keeping with the holistic business as usual strategy, cyber-crime is already being targeted by the Met, City of London Police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Members of the public will be warned only to buy from official sites - and not before 2011 when the tickets go on sale.

Olympics-Specific Threats

While threats like terrorism and ticket fraud are constants, some threats are specific to the Olympics. Those formulating the Olympic Risk Assessment are working on ways of securing airspace over the Olympic venues and on how to stop liquid explosives being taken in. Ways of bringing in alternative water or electricity sources are being studied should electricity or gas, food or water supplies be disrupted through natural causes or attack.

And there are plans to deal with protests and public disorder. The majority of the security budget for the Olympics will be spent in 2012, and a significant part of this will be on policing costs - logistics, overtime and equipment amongst other costs.  Up to 10,000 officers may be needed on certain days.

Analysts are working out how secure the fencing must be - much of it has an electric charge. As Lord West points out, 'If you have a fence that takes one and a half minutes to get through, you need security people that can get there within one and a half minutes. We're working with counter-terrorism officers on this.' Getting the right balance is a challenge, weighing the strength and cost of fencing against the cost of employing security guards.

There is also a risk in the number of people working on the construction sites - due to reach 12,000 by next year. Already some have been pciked up because they were found to be illegal immigrants. This is the one area where biometrics has been introduced: each worker must scan in his or her handprint to have access.

Big Challenges Ahead

One of the biggest specific security challenges is accreditation. Anyone who plans to work in a venue - any athlete, coach, judge or official - needs accreditation. Their pass must be verifiable against a computer database which can be accessed by attendants at each entrance. The International Olympic Committee decides who is entitled to be accredited and those people must then be security cleared under UK rules and issued with a visa which will form part of the same document as the accreditation. Given the government's record on asylum and immigration it would be naïve to assume it will go smoothly. The real test will come when we must eventually ensure that those accredited actually leave the country once the Games are over.

The Role of the Military

As the Games draw closer, intelligence work by UK intelligence agencies at home and abroad will become increasingly critical.

Talks have begun with the Ministry of Defence over the role of the military. A naval officer has been tasked, at the expense of the Home Office, to work alongside police on maritime security in Dorset where the sailing will take place. It is possible that other military specialists will be called in too. But the army will not form part of the wider security plan.

'At the moment it's a blue games,' Assistant Commissioner Allison says. 'The Olympics and Paralympics will be policed by police services up and down the country and we have no plans to use the army as part of the policing plan.'

There is little doubt the security planning for the London 2012 Olympics is ahead of where other nations were two and a half years before their Games. Those behind the UK strategy have outlined in their official document how they hope it will:[4]

leave a lasting legacy of improved and effective partnership among UK security operators, a well motivated and developed workforce and an improved national security infrastructure and processes.

But the decision to keep costs down and avoid unnecessary risk means that the legacy will not include new state of the art security systems which could benefit the UK as a whole, as other Olympics have done. And the real test of value will rest on whether the plan is strong and far reaching enough to deal with any eventuality, however unpredictable. For those in the offices of the Olympic Security Directorate in Canary Wharf, looking down on the main venues rising almost daily as construction progresses, that must be the biggest challenge of all.

Margaret Gilmore
Senior Research Fellow

[1] Home Office Press Release, 'Multi-million pound security boost for London 2012 games', 2 November 2009.
[2] Home Office, 'London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Safety and Security Strategy', July 2009; Home Office, 'A Safe and Secure Games for All', July 2009.
[3] Which? Computing, 'Scammers cash in on 2012 Olympic games online', November 2009.
[4] Home Office, 'London 2012', op. cit. in note 2.

Explore our related content