Boston’s Legacy: Assessing Event Security in the Countdown to the Paris Olympics

By: Ermoni Boghossian

Photo credits: Sonia Su via Wikimedia Commons 

Introduction

Fresh fears in connection to Islamic State (IS) recently arose as a result of the Moscow concert hall attack in March this year, in which more than 130 people were killed. This attack signified once more that large-scale public gatherings that are hard to protect – or so-called soft targets – remain a target of choice for terrorists. Viewed from the terrorists’ standpoint,  whose goal it is to instil fear in the population, public events such as global sports events can be considered specifically valuable, given the extensive media coverage of these events. For this reason, global sports events have frequently become the target of terrorist attacks in the past, as demonstrated by the hostage crisis of the Munich Olympics (1972), the Atlanta Olympic bombing (1996), and even the attack at the Stade De France (2015).

In light of the upcoming Paris Olympics, this article will explore how lessons learned from the Boston Marathon bombing attack of 2013 have served to improve protective security around large scale sports events. Eleven years ago, during the Boston Marathon, two terrorists set off two backpacks filled with pipe bombs, killing three spectators and participants and injuring over 260. Following the attack, thorough assessments led to considerable improvements in security measures for both domestic and international events. This article will try to assess how some of the security concerns identified after the Boston bombing will be addressed at the upcoming Paris Summer Games 2024. 

Boston Marathon Attack: A Watershed Moment in Event Security

The 117th Boston Marathon drew around 26,000 runners in April 2013. Ninety minutes after runners passed the starting line, two bombs went off 190 metres apart at the finish line on Boylston Street. The explosions occurred roughly three hours after the victorious runner crossed the finish line. The explosives were disguised in backpacks and dropped on the ground amongst spectators. 

The events from April 2013 had a devastating impact on event security awareness and served as a catalyst for major changes in event security protocols. On the one hand, the events mirrored key best practices such as leadership unity for effective response, the successful triage and transport of victims and the strong planning and execution around the re-opening of Boylston Street. On the contrary, investigators also highlighted several security weaknesses and critical areas of improvement

One of the main weak spots in the security of the event was the massive number of spectators along the race course. Providing 100 percent assured security from terrorist attacks for soft targets such as large-scale sports gatherings is next to impossible. Nonetheless, a lack of clear protocols during the 2013 Boston Marathon enhanced specific risks associated with large-scale public events. For example, although law enforcement officers were present along the route, there was no set protocol for checking bags, suspicious parcels, nor for controlling traffic flows among spectators. 

Collaboration was among the key lessons from the Boston Marathon bombing crisis response investigation. Emergency medical services, law enforcement, and public health all handled large numbers of victims well. Responders should communicate and exchange information to respond swiftly and effectively. Strong leadership and a united command structure were critical to collaborative decision-making and resource allocation during the crisis response to the attack. The investigation also highlighted how labour, equipment, and technology must be coordinated to ensure a successful emergency response. Finally, the investigation stressed the constant need for first responders to follow training for crisis situations like terrorist attacks.

Fortunately, the lessons learned resulted in considerable improvements for the 2019 Boston Marathon. Public drinking and open containers were prohibited throughout the race course. The marathon route was extensively surveilled, bomb sniffing dogs were deployed, and items such as backpacks, guns, masks, and military-style devices were prohibited. Furthermore, by adopting new technologies, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious races is now safer owing to real-time surveillance and facial recognition software.

Evolving Security Measures: The Olympic Games in Paris 2024

Annual marathons like the one in Boston, however, aren’t the only sports events that are presumed to be an appealing target for terrorists. Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, there have been significant security concerns around the world’s most famous sports event. The first major security incident at the Olympics happened when Palestinian militant organisation Black September took several Israeli athletes hostage during the  1972 Munich Olympics, which resulted in the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes, one German police officer, and five others. The second crisis during the Olympics happened in 1996, when an American domestic terrorist set off a pipe bomb at Centennial Olympic Park during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, killing two people and injuring many more. As a result, the Games have since been accompanied with strong security measures to safeguard both spectators and contestants. 

In the lead up to the upcoming Games in Paris, officials have raised the alarm about several minor to severe security concerns. The huge amount of visitors in Paris that will watch the Olympics means that theft will be prevalent in the area. An additional security concern may stem from the recent French Farmer protests, which could lead to clashes with security forces causing disruption for inbound travellers, as well as for movement within Paris. Lastly, from an operational and logistical standpoint, there are also increased concerns related to cybersecurity, specifically about the possible targeting of critical infrastructure such as power grids, communication networks and transportation systems. 

The key security challenge, however, lies with the increased risk of a terrorist attack, especially due to the Israel-Gaza war, which prompted a rise in antisemitic incidents and fear of radicalisation among already at-risk individuals who might feel emboldened to commit a terrorist attack. The opening ceremony of this year’s Olympics was expected to lure 600,000 spectators to the Seine. However, as such a large gathering during the ceremony is considered too risky, less than half of the onlookers are allowed to attend. The authorities report that they’ve adopted this approach because huge crowds are more vulnerable to attacks, citing concerns around crowd management, panic, and stampedes.

Despite the authorities’ security concerns, however, the French government assures that the security arrangements for the Games are continually being adjusted to the geopolitical setting and threats intensity. To do so, France has launched the third of four waves of tenders for private security. As a result, there will be around 17,000 – 22,000 security professionals present. Additionally, 30,000 police officers and troops will be deployed to safeguard the areas around the Games. In addition to physical security forces, smart surveillance systems with real-time video analytics and biometric identification, smart sensors, artificial intelligence algorithms, predictive analytics, and blockchain technology are expected to improve security and reduce threats. 

Due to the global scale of the event, French authorities will also cooperate with several international partners. Europol has reached an agreement with the country to boost operational information sharing and international law enforcement. Europol will also send personnel to help with security procedures. Moreover, UK security professionals will assist France with providing protective security during the Olympics, while Qatar will supply security services such as foot and mounted patrols, counter-terrorism expertise, drones and explosive detection dogs. Similarly, Morocco is partnering with France to provide additional security assistance.

Public Perception, Civil Liberties & Technology 

Despite France’s vows to ensure the safety of attendees of the Olympics, the increased emphasis on security at large gatherings has also raised concerns about the profound impact on the relationship between public safety and individual freedom, especially when looking at the interplay of technology, law enforcement methods, and civil liberties to ensure security while protecting basic rights. The technologies that will be deployed during the Paris Olympics, such as sophisticated monitoring and data analytics, come with  privacy issues and can lead to potential abuse of individuals’ data protection rights. Enhanced security measures, such as biometric identification and access control systems, may also potentially have an influence on freedom of movement within Olympic venues, raising concerns about discrimination and profiling based on biassed algorithms or inaccurate data inputs. 

Balancing the need for security with the protection of civil liberties and basic rights is a difficult task for event organisers and legislators. A civil society public letter opposes the proposed French rule governing the deployment of algorithmic surveillance cameras in public spaces during the 2024 Olympic Games. According to the letter, if enacted, France would be the first EU country to publicly legalise such surveillance, breaching international human rights law by disregarding need and proportionality. The letter also expresses worry about the law’s potential to infringe on fundamental rights like privacy, freedom of assembly and association, and nondiscrimination. Nonetheless, with the Olympics around the corner – and given France’s history with terrorist attacks at large scale gatherings – it’s not hard to imagine that France might prioritise safety and security over privacy.

Conclusion

In summary, event security should be regularly evaluated and enhanced to safeguard attendees globally. Progress has been made since the Boston Marathon, resulting inconstant innovation, adaptation, and international collaboration to address security problems. Additionally, global participation and robust public safety rules foster a sense of shared responsibility for the safety and success of future great events, emphasising the importance of safety and security while respecting individual rights and freedoms.

Security concerns have arisen as France prepares to host the upcoming Olympics, necessitating prompt action from authorities. The Israel-Gaza war and IS-K’s apparent re-emergence have escalated geopolitical tensions, with French authorities boosting security measures to protect athletes, spectators, and the public.

Nevertheless, despite these precautions, security vulnerabilities persist, highlighting the need for a comprehensive and adaptable approach to combat new threats. These challenges may be overcome by community engagement, the responsible introduction of new technologies, international cooperation and robust public safety rules that establish a shared responsibility for everyone’s safety and well-being.

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