Protecting international sports from crime and terror

There are three areas that demand attention while hosting international events. These are stadium security, safety of athletes and the verification of the antecedents of participants, both players and officials conducting events. The slightest compromise of standards while taking care of any of the three components could lead to disaster, terrorist inspired or otherwise.

In this file photo dated April 15, 1989, police, stewards and supporters care for supporters on the field after many fans were crushed onto the barriers at Hillsborough Football Stadium, in Sheffield, England, on April 15, 1989, when fans surged forward during the Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium killing 96 people.   -  AP

Security guards are briefed on the first day of the 2015 Wimbledon tennis tournament. In the wake of the terrorist strike in Brussels recently, most of the major sporting calendar, including the Frech Open and Wimbledon, will have to come under the blanket of a rigid and unprecedented security drill.   -  Getty Images

The recent Brussels terrorist strike in the heart of a bustling city has pushed up fear levels in the whole continent. Viewed in conjunction with the deadly attack in Paris in January 2015, current trends — especially the large arrivals of refugees from the Middle East and the only lightly controlled influx from Africa — project a scary scenario. Many of the European capitals are sitting on tinder because of the changed social dynamics that account for the Paris and Brussels tragedies.

The pessimist would say there is little that we can do to protect ourselves against organised terror. A slightly more optimistic perspective is that a sharp intelligence outfit, acting in tandem with a disciplined and vigilant community, can still frustrate the misadventure of a terrorist. Some confidence in the ability of law enforcement agencies and in our own innate strength to fight evil is imperative here to help ward off the potential marauder.

Brussels is in the centre of Europe. As the sun starts radiating at the end of a not so bad winter, several major sporting events are billed to enliven the continent that goes crazy over a wide spectrum of games, which includes tennis, football, golf, motor racing and, of course, cricket (though confined to England). It should be remembered that the current obvious lack of cohesion in large parts of Europe has altered the social dynamics in this region. In my view, this factor alone will pose anxious moments, not only to the police but for the sports organisers and spectators as well.

Most of the major sporting calendar — including the French Open and Wimbledon — will have to come under the blanket of a rigid and unprecedented security drill. The gory happenings during the 1972 Munich Olympics, directed mainly against the Israeli contingent, and the most unexpected stabbing of tennis superstar Monica Seles in April 1993 (though an isolated act of an aggrieved Steffi Graff fan) may be a distant memory. They have nevertheless symbolic relevance to the summer of 2016 because, when they occurred, they highlighted for the first time, the fact that like other celebrities, sportsmen were also vulnerable and had to be protected against mindless violence emanating from unknown sources.

I am afraid that law enforcement has so many distractions that major sporting spectacles will continue to receive only divided attention. It is hoped that within this parameter, certain basics will not be forgotten or ignored. Cricket administration has revealed unmatched professionalism in handling security issues, which deserves to be emulated by other sports.

>Read: How safe are our sports venues?

There are three areas that demand attention while hosting international events. These are stadium security, safety of athletes and the verification of the antecedents of participants, both players and officials conducting events. The slightest compromise of standards while taking care of any of the three components could lead to disaster, terrorist inspired or otherwise.

It is gratifying that construction of stadiums, both large and small, now takes advantage of incredible advances in modern architecture. This permits the installation of state-of-the-art equipment that scans all baggage coming into a stadium and takes care that no harmful material (such as firearms and explosives) is smuggled in, either intentionally or inadvertently. Half the battle against miscreants is won this way. The fundamental therefore is no major event is held in a stadium that falls short of basic standards, such as turnstiles coupled with wide openings to regulate smooth entry and exit.

A stampede or a semblance of it facilitates terrorist incursion. You cannot put it past the latter if he actually goes as far as engineering a stampede. The Hillsborough tragedy in the UK during a football match in Sheffield, in April 1989, killing nearly 100 spectators, is a standing reminder that crowd control is the quintessence of security. Standing terraces coupled with poor crowd control contributed heavily to the Hillsborough mishap. Here I strongly commend the extremely strict regulation of numbers that can be present at any time inside the Wimbledon complex.

CCTVs at entrances to and inside complexes help, but only to an extent. They are useful for a post mortem rather than in frustrating a potential miscreant. Complacence arising from a battery of CCTVs is therefore misconceived.

Total denial of specctator access to players has been successfully implemented in cricket. This is a model that has become standard in major cricket stadiums all over the world. Unfortunately, tennis players are still vulnerable, because of factors peculiar to the game, which demand minimum distance between spectators and tennis courts. Security guards vantageously posted on courts and to accompany tennis superstars within and outside stadiums has helped until now. For how long, one won’t know, because of the ease with which terrorists gain access to the most protected of places.

International athletic meets pose a greater problem because of the huge numbers of participants that they attract and their ethnic and national diversity. The complex web of international relations, which periodically promotes hatred and distrust between nations, is a reality that should be forbidding and complicated to organisers. The decision to engage Syria and Iraq in a major offensive has heightened the threat to the U.S. and many of the Western nations. Russia’s hobnobbing with President Assad and its uneasy relations with its neighbours as also Chechen rebels add a dimension that make Russia the most threatened nation.

India's difficult relationship with Pakistan invests cricket matches between the two countries with an import of its own kind. These are all cited as specimen of a problem, which sports organisers have to wrestle with across countries.

These are days of extreme specialisation. Counter-terrorism is an imaginative exercise that demands the labours of experts. Engaging the latter is an expensive proposition. This should not deter organisers from getting the best. Fortunately, there is a refreshing change of culture among sports bodies that welcomes a dialogue with experts.

(The writer is a former CBI Director)