Sports Law • Risk Management

May 31, 2011: Part I: Terrorism and the Olympics

I just had the pleasure of speaking on this subject at the Conference on Law, Policy andthe Olympic Movement at Ithaca College London. This is the first of several blogs that provide a portion of my paper and speech, entitled: The Olympic Games Post 9/11: Ramping up Security in Response to Severe Threats of Terrorism.

The Olympic ideal is to unite people from all nations with peaceful athletic competition. The focus is on individuals, not countries, competing without the burden of politics, religion or racism. Unfortunately, the Olympic ideal is challenged with threats of terrorism by groups that seek to promote their causes that often have political, religious and racial elements. The ancient practice of competitors laying down their arms to “enjoy the divine peace” associated with the Olympic Games continues to a large extent. However, external threats and actions by terrorists have served to interfere with the peaceful ethos of “Olympism”.
For many of us that are old enough, we remember a pivotal event in the history of the Olympics. On September 5, 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists infiltrated lax security at the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage. During a botched rescue attempt all of the hostages were killed. For the first time in modern Olympic history, the competition was suspended.

The challenge is that the Olympics is a major global media event , which attracts terrorists who seek publicity that would naturally arise from any successful threat or attack that could be associated in time or location with the Olympic Games. The 1972 Munich Massacre overwhelmingly achieved the publicity that the Palestinian terrorists sought. The leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, George Habash, wrote that:

A bomb in the White House, a mine in the Vatican, the death of Mao Tse-Tung, an earthquake in Paris could not have echoed through the consciousness of every man in the world like the operation at Munich…The choice of the Olympics, from the purely propagandist viewpoint was 100 per cent successful. It was like painting the name of Palestine on a mountain that can be seen from the four corners of the earth.
After the Munich tragedy, the IOC President Avery Brundage announced "The games must go on, ... and we must continue our efforts to keep them clean, pure and honest."]

Since the 1972 Munich Massacre, most summer Olympic Games have been threatened or attacked. An example of this was an attack that occurred several days before the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. Explosions were detonated in buses that resulted in 3 casualties in Kuming City. The Turkish Islamic Party claimed responsibility, but there was so little publicity that they did not achieve their political purpose.
While China and Greece are not countries that terrorist groups are particularly interested in targeting, the UK, with its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a strategic potential target. It should be noted that the Olympics have been targeted by groups of all sorts of differing ideologies, including a variety of nationalist separatist groups, Islamist extremists, Christian fundamentalists, militant Marxists and other who have determined that the Olympics was an attractive and appropriate target for violence that would achieve their goals. In order for a group to successfully launch an attack on the Olympic Games they must have the material and human resources and they have to have the decision-making process within the group to select the Olympics as a target. A challenge for security forces is that plots of terror may be developed shortly before the event, which limits the time period for detection of such attacks.

See: Terrorism and the Olympics: Major Event Security and Lessons for the Future, by Anthony Richards, Peter Fussey and Andrew Silke (Routledge 2010)