LONDON — British troops dressed in fatigues manned Olympic Park security checkpoints Tuesday, putting on their friendliest faces as visitors, volunteers, and the media trickled onto the site.
All went well, but it was a far cry from the first impression London Olympics organizers had intended.
The soldiers were called in at the last minute to fill the staffing gap left by the Olympics’ private security contractor, G4S. Last week, the company’s failure forced the government to turn 3,500 British soldiers into security guards for the Games. One British parliament minister called the conduct of G4S a “humiliating shambles.”
In the post 9/11-era, the Olympics can be appealing terrorist targets with hundreds of dignitaries, politicians, and royals attending and the world watching. The size and scope of the London Games — 30 filled-to-capacity venues spread across Europe’s second largest city, several hundred thousand spectators packed into subway trains every day and countless viewing parties at neighborhood pubs — present numerous hard and soft targets. And those targets come with numerous security challenges.
Attempting to handle those challenges, London Olympics organizers and government officials have spent several years on logistical coordination and contingency planning aimed at delivering the highest degree of security without dampening the festive spirit of the Games.
Following a Cabinet meeting on venue security led by Prime Minister David Cameron, an additional 1,200 soldiers were summoned to Olympic security duty Tuesday, pushing the number of British military personnel involved in safeguarding the Games to more than 18,000.
“On the eve of the largest peacetime event ever staged in this country, ministers are clear that we should leave nothing to chance,” said Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt in a statement. “The government continues to have every confidence that we will deliver a safe and secure Games.”
As the Opening Ceremonies draw near, it is hard to miss ramped-up security efforts and growing security concerns around the city.
The British are painfully aware of London’s vulnerabilities, particularly with its transportation system. On July 7, 2005, the day after the capital was awarded the right to host the 2012 Summer Games, four home-grown terrorists detonated bombs on three London Underground trains and one double-decker bus. And the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre hangs over the London Games. Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich.
“The massive size and scope of the event is really the hardest thing to deal with,” said Don Borelli, a security and counterterrorism specialist who spent 25 years with the FBI. “The magnitude of the Olympics works against any host country.
“I’m sure that they’re basically holding their breath until these Games are done,” said Borelli. “That’s everybody who has a role in ensuring that the Games come off safely and efficiently and with no black eyes—the British, the security apparatus there, the police, Scotland Yard, MI5, the organizers. Not any one agency or group can do it.”
Security specialists caution that the weeks and days before a big event are the most critical because terrorists typically do reconnaissance and dry runs during that period.
Organizers and officials are trying to fill in perceived gaps, hoping to create a deterrent effect with alerts and noticeable military and police presence around the city.
There are larger numbers of British transport police on patrol at St. Pancras International Station, a popular departure point for the Olympic Park.
Announcements on trains advise travelers to report anything suspicious. Upon exiting Stratford International Station at the site, a sign alerts visitors to the presence of CCTV for security purposes and reads: “If you can see this, we can see you.”
Antiaircraft missiles are stationed on rooftops to protect the air space above venues. And the Royal Navy’s largest warship is floating in the Thames River, where it will serve as a base for military helicopters and Royal Marine snipers.
Additionally, FBI agents will be in London to help protect American athletes and VIPs, as they have at previous Games. Almost all foreign dignitaries travel with their own security, underscoring the need for communication and cooperation.
In many respects, security at large-scale sports events has become what Borelli called “a worldwide responsibility.” Borelli estimates the amount of intelligence information coming in to various organizations is “probably tenfold the normal amount.” Typically, at major sports events like the Olympics and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there exists a joint intelligence center with representatives from multiple countries who sift through intelligence information and determine the necessary follow-up.
“Communication and collaboration are probably two of the most critical elements to getting through an operation to a successful conclusion,” said Mark Camillo, an Olympic security specialist who served as security coordinator for the Salt Lake City Games while with the US Secret Service. “A security plan that’s done right is one that’s done early and done in collaboration with the different stakeholder organizations both in the public sector and the private sector.”
This week, communication will be even more important as London organizers and officials deal with the G4S fiasco. Now, another concern is how well the additional soldiers adapt to their new assignments.
“I don’t think it will necessarily change the risk factor,” said Borelli, now a senior vice president with The Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy. “You have to believe that with their basic military training they have a general sense of security. Teaching them how to do screening and checking shouldn’t be too far outside their skill set. The problem would be just some of the coordination issues.”
But all along, organizers and officials have insisted they are prepared for anything, reviewing and rehearsing different types of emergency scenarios.
Speaking before the G4S debacle, Hugh Robertson, British Minister for Sport and the Olympics, said, “We have a book with every single risk from terrorism to plague to electricity failure. The risk register says what we’re going to do if any of those things happen. We think we have convincing answers should any and all of those things happen. Anyone who reads this ought not to be alarmed, but take great comfort in the fact that we’re planning for these things.”
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.