A quick look at the vast security apparatus being built up around the upcoming Summer Olympics in London shows exactly how seriously Olympic officials now take the threat of a terrorist attack.
Biometric technology for access-control systems. Facial-recognition technology to go with London’s huge video surveillance system. Bomb-detecting sensors. Devices that detect radiation and ingredients for chemical and biological weapons. Restricted airspace and antiaircraft missiles at the ready. A worldwide database for people on terrorist or criminal want lists. A command center bringing together law enforcement groups from all over the world, and a well-connected infrastructure to make sure important pieces of intelligence are passed on to the right people.
In total, more than $2 billion will be spent on security, illustrating this is a far different world from the one that hosted the 1972 Summer Games. That year, organizers spent only $2 million on security and terrorists exploited the security holes, attacking the Israeli compound in the Olympic Village and killing 11 members of the Israeli delegation.
With the eyes of the world focused on London, the Olympic movement can’t afford another terror attack on the same scale as Munich or greater.
“If something significant happens at an Olympic Games like London, that’d be end of it,” said Ray Mey, a security consultant and counterterrorism chief for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. “We won’t see the Olympic Games anymore.”
Of course, targeting the Olympics might be the most difficult operation a band of terrorists could ever face. Any target short of a presidential palace would be easier than the upcoming Olympics. With their asymmetric warfare, terrorists aren’t known to target the most secure places in the world.
Few places today could rival the naiveté and lack of preparation as Munich in 1972.
“The security was surface,” said Michael Hershman, president of Fairfax Group, an international security consultancy firm that has provided security at a number of different Olympic Games. “There’d never been an incident like that before, so the security planning was routine, surface security, not well thought-out or well implemented.”
Yet an attack on the Olympics isn’t limited to the brash operation of 1972, when Palestinian terrorists scaled a fence in the middle of the night and broke into the Israeli compound. Security consultants feel an attack today would likely be indiscriminate instead of like the operation in Munich, which targeted only Israelis. An attack anywhere in London — even before the Games have started — could create a ripple effect at Olympic venues.
“There are so many ways,” said Tom McMillen, who played for the United States basketball team in the 1972 Games and later became a US congressman. “You can have a terrorist event before the Games that creates a disincentive for athletes to come to London, so you have to protect before the Games, too. The fact of the matter is, I think, the risk is more before the Games than (during) the Games. A dirty bomb is not a very difficult thing to do. It would probably not kill anybody but the panic effect could cause teams to cancel coming.”
What happened 40 years ago forever changed the way Olympics organizers deal with security. After the 11 Israelis were killed, sporting events were canceled for a day and a memorial service was held. But the next day, the Games were back on. The fear was that cancelling the rest of the Games could spell the end of the Olympics.
Eight years after Munich, organizers of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid built a very secure Olympic Village — it was changed into a prison after the Games. And later that year, the Soviets deployed 240,000 members of the military at the Summer Games in Moscow in a display of intimidation.
Later came 9/11, which showed Olympic security organizers that terrorists could mount an attack exponentially worse than Munich. Five months later, Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Games, and the federal government opened its checkbook for security measures. Some $500 million was spent to keep Salt Lake City secure. Security planning begins years in advance, building on-ground security infrastructure while intelligence agencies plumb sources for possible Olympic threats. And London, with its decades of experience dealing with terrorist attacks from the Irish Republican Army, ought to be as prepared as any city in the world, the opposite of Munich 40 years ago.
Yet, no matter how much we pour into making every Olympics a fortress of safety, an event of such scale inevitably carries risk.
“You’re planning to bring the world to your country, and when you do that you bring all the problems of world, too,” Mey said.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.