Protecting sports fans a challenge after Paris attacks
By John Leicester for The Associated Press
PARIS — Since the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people, private security guards have sprung up everywhere, searching bags and keeping watch at shopping malls, in hotel lobbies, at post offices, even public swimming pools. The profession is so busy that its regulator in France is cautioning that the European Championships host might not have enough guards to fully secure the tournament next June.
By John Leicester for The Associated Press
Particularly problematic are designated “fan zones” for large outdoor crowds in the host cities, set aside for ticketless fans to gather, watch games for free on jumbo screens, and party. Even before the Nov. 13 attacks plunged France into a state of emergency, the National Council of Private Security Activities was already warning that Euro 2016 “fan zones weren’t manageable,” the regulator’s president, Alain Bauer, said. It has since suggested that zones may need to be scrapped altogether so security can be reinforced at stadiums and resources not spread too thin.
“We can’t simply invent people who are neither trained, nor available,” Bauer told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “We have left the organizers the time to make a choice.”
But other experts say there are practical and philosophical reasons for keeping zones in all 10 host cities next June.
Here is a look at some of their arguments:
NO SURRENDER: Fan zones have become standard features of sports mega-events. For that reason alone, they must not be scrapped in response to terror. Knee-jerk changes to the way people live and curbing their freedoms would hand a victory to the Islamic State group that claimed the Paris attacks.
“Aren’t you then pandering to the terrorists by taking them away?” asks John Beattie, who heads the European Stadium and Safety Management Association. “In some ways that means they are winning. … Sooner or later the games get played behind closed doors and everyone is watching in their front room.”
SAFE ZONES: Explosive vests that suicide bombers detonated in the Paris attacks were packed with steel shrapnel designed to kill and maim. Their cruelty heightened concerns of possible mass casualties if packed fan zones were similarly targeted next June. Paradoxically, however, corralling fans into secured, fenced-in zones, where they could be searched and watched over, may be a safer option than having them dispersed in bars or elsewhere, experts say.
French government officials “prefer to have a crowd gathered in one area rather than having fans spread all over the place, because they are harder to watch and safeguard,” Euro 2016 organizer Jacques Lambert says.
Helmut Spahn, who oversaw security for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, concurs. “If you have no fan zone and there are 100,000 or millions of people around it is much, much more difficult to secure them,” he says.
Beattie cautions, however, that would-be attackers could then eye other targets.
“This, again, is the problem: You make the fan zones such a hard target that they just go somewhere else and they still cause as much devastation in the restaurant across the road,” he said. “What you’ve got to rely on is the security services knowing about the plot before it happens.”
PERSPECTIVE: Spahn, now director general of the International Centre for Sport Security think-tank, says it is important to keep a sense of perspective. After deadly terror bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, terrorism — along with hooliganism — topped the list of perceived threats at the 2006 World Cup, yet the tournament’s huge fans zones “passed off without any major incidents,” he notes.
“A 100 per cent safe and secure environment is, in today’s world, impossible,” he adds. “But it was also impossible 10, 20 or 30 years ago. This is nothing new.”
PRACTICALITIES: Concretely, Euro 2016 organizers and host cities have an array of options to make fan zones harder to target. On top of security fences and pat-downs at the entrances, they could make fans pass through metal detectors, although that also takes extra time.
“You need a huge number of entrances, you need a huge number of personnel,” Spahn said.
Telling fans they won’t be allowed in with bags also might not be practical, given that many will be travelling from abroad and will need places to stow luggage.
“So you need also a plan B,” Spahn said.
Forward-planning and flexibility are vital. At the 2006 World Cup, organizers erected so many fences that, “at the end of the day, we were running out and we had to buy in fences from other countries,” Spahn said.
PUBLIC HELP: Fans also can help themselves by being smart and patient: Get to zones and games early; don’t leave bags unattended; carry ID; expect airport-style security and act accordingly. Beattie says fans increasingly accept that such measures are “a necessary means to an end.”
“All major sports events are facing this new and very different type of threats,” Spahn said. “This is not limited to France.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press.