The disruption of this year’s boat race by an individual protest has provided a reminder of the challenge of delivering absolute security for the Olympics, and in particular those events held in open public space and not contained within venues and secured perimeters (it is not without irony that the perpetrator of the Boat Race stunt appears to have an interest in the role of fences/railings in securing public space, when the unsecurable nature of the event enabled his actions). This is a danger that is well-known to Olympic organizers, most of all in relation to the pre-event relay of the Olympic torch; such as disruption by anti-globalisation protests in Italy ahead of Torino 2006 and human rights protests ahead of Beijing 2008 in several countries, including the UK and France. This led the IOC to scrap international torch relays due to the high risk of incidents. While this has reduced the threat of international incidents, the problem of securing perimeters over long distances has led the organizers of past Olympics to pursue surveillance and intelligence-based responses.
While such events tend to highlight the pressure for absolute security at mega-events, juxtaposed with the innate vulnerabilities of certain events to disruption, it is worth keeping in mind that isolated stunts are more likely to result in PR disasters and reputational risk, than catastrophic human or environmental disasters — since by definition the weaknesses in secure perimeters and security cordons tend to be located away from the main venues and infrastructure hubs, with far lower levels of population density, posing fewer risks to critical infrastructures and (mass) public safety. If policing for mega-events is to be ‘risk-based’, without pushing security budgets further skywards, then isolated incidents and PR embarrassments must surely be the price of staging public events without further restrictions on individual freedom.