Securing the Torch - 2012 London Olympics

When the flame is ignited on 27 July 2012, London will become the first city to host the modern Olympic Games three times. The Olympics present unique security concerns – ranging from potential terrorist threats to the inevitable protestors – that leave the host city and nation vulnerable in a number of ways. According to officials of this year’s Games, there will be 26 Olympic sports and 20 Paralympic sports scheduled to take place in venues – throughout London and across the United Kingdom – that are expected to draw crowds of approximately 450,000 spectators. An estimated 11 million tickets to various events have already been sold. Ensuring the security of spectators and competitors alike during the Games will therefore be a daunting, and sometimes dangerous, task for the metropolitan police and private-security personnel involved, and even more so in some ways for the United Kingdom’s own uniformed services.

Organizers of the Olympics initially projected the number of security guards needed to protect the numerous venues and Olympic areas at approximately 10,000 personnel. Later, though, new assessments – conducted by the UK government and the Olympic Committee – factored in the possibility of emerging terrorist threats and the potential for riots and protests. To meet those added challenges, they more than doubled the initial estimate to at least 23,700 and, possibly, as many as 49,000 full- and part-time personnel. In fact, largely because of the unique and varied security requirements involved, it is now anticipated that the 2012 London Olympics will require the largest mobilization of military and civilian security forces seen in the United Kingdom since the end of World War II.

Tunnels of Truth, Atlanta & the Munich Massacre

Terrorist attacks have tarnished two past Olympics – in Munich, Germany, and Atlanta, Georgia – and the 2012 Olympics will present an even greater challenge: protecting the United Kingdom’s largest metropolitan area and one of the world’s busiest airports from an even broader spectrum of potential threats by sea, air, or land. Despite many unforgettable moments provided by the athletes participating, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, will be remembered mostly for two deaths and 111 injured after Eric Rudolph, who was religiously motivated, planted three bombs that exploded near a stage in Centennial Olympic Park. To avoid similar security concerns, such as those posed by huge open areas and tens of thousands of wandering spectators, foot traffic and venue access at the London Olympic Park will be limited – confined within a 16-foot high fence and including, in some areas, a four-foot electric fence. Tactical operation centers will maintain constant and continuous surveillance using live feeds from closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and real-time communications with personnel throughout the site.

In addition to the CCTV coverage and contained areas, the entrances to this year’s Olympic venues will funnel attendees through several security-controlled access gates or choke points – (nicknamed by the UK Home Office as “Tunnels of Truth”). These points will incorporate a broad spectrum of computerized equipment systems to: (a) detect explosives and weapons; (b) match images of suspected or known terrorists (through the use of facial-recognition systems); (c) trace and validate tickets and travel documents; and (d) identify CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive) agents. In order for support employees to access the stadiums, venues, or Olympic Park, workers at the Games will be required to pass through a biometric scanner that takes hand and iris readings, thus eradicating the requirement for individual passes or keys – which have the potential to be lost, duplicated, or stolen.

Augmenting the mechanisms used for detecting and preparing for a CBRNE event, security must also prepare for an openly hostile incident such as the “Munich Massacre.” Similar in several ways to Atlanta’s Olympic Park bombing, the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, were largely overshadowed by the killing of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, and a German police officer, by members of the Palestinian “Black September” terrorist group. Security experts in London have thoroughly analyzed the Munich Massacre to determine how it happened and, more importantly, how a similar attack, at the London Olympics, can be prevented. In addition to the inadequate physical security in Munich, it was determined that mistakes were also made in the follow-up plan to rescue the Israeli athletes from the hostage takers.

The quintessential factor was twofold – the inadequate preparedness of the security personnel involved, and the lack of proper equipment. With the British SAS (Special Air Service) heavily involved – including participation in numerous training exercises – in the 2012 security preparations, it is doubtful that a similar situation will occur as a result of any lack of preparedness. Moreover, and in contrast to Munich, the actual physical security within the Olympic Village in London will include more concrete barriers, rather than the portable chain-link fences used in Munich.

Protection by Land, Air, and Sea

Enhancing security at the Olympics will be only half the battle for the United Kingdom. With close to 500,000 tourists staying in London itself, several supplementary levels of security will be employed throughout the entire city – and during the entire event. Tourists will be encouraged to travel by public transport, for example, because many of the roads near the Olympic venues will be closed to traffic – other than official vehicles. From a security perspective, the city also must ensure not only the safety of the Olympics but the safety of the city as well. To improve overall security coverage, therefore: (a) CCTV cameras will be used in and around high-traffic public transit centers; (b) crucial transport hubs will be staffed with supplemental police officers; (c) new number-plate and facial-recognition software will be used to identify potential suspects and/or suspicious vehicles; and (d) several additional measures, such as state-of-the-art weapon-detection devices and other systems – many of them highly classified – will be introduced. The traditional quick and easy access to London’s aging underground subway system, which anticipates an additional 400,000 passengers daily during the Olympics, adds to the potential for problems.

Since the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001, and well before the 2012 Olympic preparations started, being able to prevent a similar attack on London has been a top priority for the United Kingdom. London must protect not only the ground area, but the air above it as well. To do so, the UK Home Office has developed a multidimensional Air Security Plan for the Olympics, which augments measures already in place to ensure that the city’s airspace is protected. The positioning of radar systems and use of surveillance aircraft stationed in areas close to London, and elsewhere throughout the country, will provide a real-time depiction of airspace that should be particularly helpful.

If a scenario similar to the 9/11 or other terrorist attacks were to develop, a Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoon aircraft (a single-seat fighter jet) and RAF helicopters deployed with snipers will be immediately available to intercept and impede any posed threat. In February 2012, an exercise codenamed “Taurus Mountain 2” tested this planned response with considerable success. The airspace around London and the Olympic Park will in fact have not one but two overlapping levels of restrictions in place. The outer ring – encompassing the Luton, Stansted, and Gatwick airports – will be designated restricted airspace, with only limited flyovers allowed. The inner ring – encompassing the Heathrow airport and most if not quite all of the Olympic venues – will be considered prohibited airspace – a no-fly zone, in other words. In an effort to bolster defenses and air support, the government is ready and willing, in fact – for the first time since World War II – to use surface-to-air missiles in the defense plan.

Coupled with security challenges on both land and air, officials are also concerned with those threats that could potentially come via water – more specifically, the River Thames, which runs through the heart of London and connects the Olympic Village at Stratford with the Olympic venues located in North Greenwich. Security on the Thames is a crucial component of the comprehensive security plan. Similar to the exercises conducted on land and air, the United Kingdom’s elite military and police teams joined forces in a combined exercise called “Operation Woolwich Arsenal Pier.” That exercise – comprising various scenarios, including the potential hijacking of a ferry carrying athletes or spectators – demonstrated how the Royal Marines and Scotland Yard would (and must) work together to use offshore landing craft, rigid inflatable boats, and a Lynx helicopter, to cope with and defeat a security breach by water. In addition to the massive presence of naval/military personnel, HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s largest vessel – designed primarily to support amphibious landing operations – will be positioned on the Thames to provide logistics support and personnel accommodations and, not incidentally, to serve as a landing site for the helicopters providing tactical air support for the Olympics.

Planning, Exercises & New Legislation

Supplementing the individual sea, air, and land exercises, security personnel enacted a two-day live full-scale exercise (FSE) – nicknamed “Forward Defensive” – in central London. Drawing on the lessons learned from the 7 July 2005 subway bombings in London, approximately 2,500 first responders, security, and emergency-services personnel were faced with a scenario of a terror attack on the underground subway during the Olympics. The exercise tested how senior decision makers would manage: (a) the impact of the incident; (b) the investigation needed to apprehend those responsible; and (c) several other political and management issues – e.g., intentional travel disruptions and protests – that might adversely affect the smooth running of this year’s Olympic Games. By bringing together such planning and training, and exercising numerous contingencies, deficiencies and weaknesses can be exposed before an actual event occurs.

In addition to the full-field exercises carried out and the enhanced security measures put in place to combat a possible terrorist attack or hostage situation, the UK government has enacted some innovative legislation tailor-made for the 2012 Games. New and aggressive disciplinary laws are now in force. One example: The London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006 empowers not only the army and police, but also the private security agencies involved, to use physical force to deal with “security issues” or “Occupy-style protests.”

On 27 July 2012, an estimated global audience of five billion viewers will be watching as London experiences its largest-ever security operation. As the target of terrorist attacks in 2005 and the scene of widespread rioting in 2011, London has reached for and attained a higher level of security. Acts of terrorism, crime, and anti-social behavior have been planned for, exercised, safeguarded against, and exercised yet again. London also has been wired with a new range of scanners, biometric identification systems, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV devices, disease-tracking systems, and the designation of a broad spectrum of new police control centers and random security checkpoints. In short, extensive contingency planning has prepared London for protests and public-order issues – which now seem more likely than an international terrorism incident per se. However, should some unfortunate and/or dangerous incident unravel despite all of these preparations, the security personnel onsite will already be in place, well trained and ready to respond.


For additional information on: The 2012 London Olympics, visit

London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Safety and Security Strategy, visit

London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, visit

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 



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