Mike Rowbottom: London 2012's security measures may seem elaborate but they need to be respected

Wednesday, 14 December 2011
Mike Rowbottom_17-11-11Since the terrorist attack at the Munich Games of 1972, the Olympics Games has had to accommodate itself to ever more costly and elaborate security measures.

As Tony Soprano might say: "What are you gonna do?"

When the stories come out as they have this week about the plan to deploy HMS Ocean and HMS Bulwark, RAF Typhoons, helicopters, ground-to-air missile systems and 13,500 military operatives in the London 2012 security operation, the scary-sounding nature of the information has to be put in context.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has described the forthcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games as "the biggest security challenge this country has faced for decades".

Those charged with the task of trying to ensure that each quadrennial international gathering proceeds in safety are in an unenviable position. If anybody needed reminding that the worst-case scenario is always the one to have in mind in such circumstances, the pipe bombing at the Atlanta Games of 1996 – which resulted in the death of two individuals and left 111 injured – refocused the collective gaze.

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After that device had exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park in the early hours of July 27, I made my way from my press accommodation to the centre of the city, trying to interview any witnesses I could encounter. I spoke to two people who had been close to the incident, which had taken place after a late-night concert, and their faces were still blank with shock as they described the sights and sounds of the blast.

I have lost count of the number of times since then that I have had to unpack and re-pack my bag in passing through Olympic security checkpoints. I am not going to lie – it has often been a wearisome and vexatious process, especially when, as often happens, restrictions shift and change by the day. But the bottom line is that such measures have almost certainly prevented similar enormities from being visited upon the Games-going public, and as such, need to be respected. Atlanta is the reminder of that.

Six years after Atlanta the Olympic world returned to the United States for the Salt Lake Winter Games – which took place just three raw months after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. What had happened in lower Manhattan on that sunny September morning was present in everyone's mind as the Games approached.

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Every morning in my hotel I breakfasted in front of a huge mural depicting fireman raising a Stars and Stripes flag above the rubble of Ground Zero, after the iconic photo of GI's raising the US flag following the bloody Second World War victory in Iwo Jima.

As I queued for the Opening Ceremony at the Rice-Eccles stadium, where the tattered Stars and Stripes flag recovered from Ground Zero was due to be carried into the stadium and hoisted, symbolically, alongside the Olympic flag, I momentarily felt my stomach grip with apprehension.

As with any Olympic opening, the occasion was an epicentre of world attention. President Bush was attending. Sting was due to sing a duet with Yo-Yo-Ma. Meanwhile twin thoughts were duetting in my own head: this is the most dangerous place in the world; this is the safest place in the world.

At those Salt Lake Games, US skier Picabo Street competed with a helmet bearing the images of an American eagle, the US Flag, the Statue of Liberty and an F16 fighter plane.

Above her, real versions of the F16 patrolled the skies as part of a $300 million (£192 million/€224 million) security measure.

The 2002 Games involved some 16,000 police and military officers – that is, roughly six officials for every competitor. Soldiers with M16 rifles patrolled all the major compounds. Hundreds of CCTV cameras watched the streets, linked to an intelligence centre in Washington. Sniper and assault teams stood ready, along with specialised units to monitor for biological and chemical threats. Thousands of doses of anti-anthrax drugs were also stockpiled.

The world at that moment was desperate for normality, for the opportunity to lose itself in the parallel world of sport.

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Thankfully, the 2002 Games passed without any terrorist incident – although not without a riot, which was hardly what Salt Lake had expected.

"Riots," said the cashier at the convenience store beside my hotel, wonderingly. "We don't have riots in Salt Lake City."

But a few hours earlier, as Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning, a riot is exactly what the Mormon capital found itself dealing with after an incident reported to have begun at the popular Bud World venue near the Olympic Plaza.

Shortly after midnight, the whole drunken sprawl had reached the junction of Pierpont Avenue and West Temple in the downtown area, which was where I had just dined with a group of journalists.

A group of around 30 riot police in shiny black helmets and visors were grouped outside the Hilton Hotel foyer. Most of those around me were young, male and – I would have guessed – drunk. Their mood was a volatile mix of heady excitement and surly anger.

"What's this all about?" I asked. One person said it had begun when police had ejected a group of youngsters from a concert. Another said it had begun when a girl had refused to raise her top for another group.

The scene on the street was just as confused. While most stood watching, a number of others, occasionally shouting "USA, USA" or "Utah, Utah", roamed methodically around a nearby parking lot and found missiles – traffic cones, a metal grill, a piece of brick – which they hurled at the still huddled group of police.

Someone, somewhere, began a systematic smashing of glass. A little way down Pierpont Avenue by this time, I assumed it was the windows of the Macaroni Grill in which we had recently been sitting. The morning revealed, however, that the windows remained intact – it was the large glass and metal ornamental lamps all around the restaurant which had been smashed.

Yes, this was a riot – but one which remained within reasonable parameters.

Whether that could be said of the response was another question. Triggered by reasons unknown, the riot police outside the Hilton decided to charge the crowd, which fled in front of them.

The air grew loud with the sound of helicopter blades as police hovered overhead, illuminating the streets with powerful, directed lights. Reports eventually indicated that up to 300 police officers – including a SWAT team from the local sheriff's office – had become involved. At various points in the evening, police fired a number of foam bullets – less lethal munitions, in their own charming vernacular – into the crowd and later said they had made 30 arrests in an incident which went on until around 2.30am.

A Games that had begun with a real sense of foreboding about possible terrorist attacks ended with the resounding crack of sledgehammer on nut.

Not ideal. But the sledgehammer has to be there. Just in case.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.
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