Sport has remained defiant in the face of terrorism since tragedy struck in Paris last week. But are sporting events at a bigger risk than other spaces? By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
As the pieces of the puzzle of the terror attacks in Paris that killed over 100 people and left hundreds more injured started to emerge, one particular bit of information would have left sports fans cold. One of the attackers had a ticket to the friendly between France and Germany at the Stade de France. While terror raged around the stadium and across Paris, the match carried on, but the threat was far from over.
Both the teams spent the night holed up in the changing rooms of the stadium with a decoy bus sent to collect personal belongings of the German players. The French team refused to leave their German opponents alone, and stayed with them until the next morning. This simple display of solidarity recovered some of the hope in the human race that the attacks had siphoned from many, but only briefly.
On touchdown back in Germany, defender Mats Hummels tweeted:
“The world is fucked up right now.”
Make no mistake: one terror attack is no more horrendous than another. They are all grotesque acts of cowardice. All terror attacks spread feelings of fear and make citizens feel unsafe doing what they love, something that makes them happy. Sport happens to be one of those things and thus, for fans, it feels more ghastly when their distraction and joy is compromised and attacked.
Terrorists attacking sport and its fans is nothing new. In 2014, a suicide bomber in a three-wheeled rickshaw taxi pressed his button, detonating a bomb that killed at 21 people and left at least 27 seriously injured in an attack at a Nigerian fan park. There have been countless attacks such as these, although it is not clear if the terrorists who attacked these places were specifically after sports fans or whether they simply saw a public place as a soft target.
In 2009, the Sri Lankan cricket team bus was attacked by 12 gunmen, killing six police officers and two civilians, leaving a number of Sri Lankan players and officials injured. The following year, the Togo national football’s team bus was attacked while it was travelling through Angola. Three people died and nine others were injured. The bus carrying the team’s luggage was shot to smithereens.
During the 1972 Munich Games, the Palestinian militant group Black September took the Israeli national team hostage. They would kill 11 athletes, coaches and a German police officer during a 16-hour standoff.
The Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta was bombed in 1996, killing one and injuring hundreds. In 2002, a car bomb was set off outside the Bernabau in Madrid, prior to Madrid’s Champion’s League semi-final against Barcelona. In 2006, during a sports conference in Baghdad, 50 gunmen stormed the venue and kidnapped over 30 people, including Ahmed al-Hadjiya, the head of the country’s Olympic Committee. During that year, the Iraq Olympic team lost several athletes and coaches – some went missing, others were killed. In 2008, a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber detonated a device at the start of a marathon celebrating the start of Sri Lanka’s New Year, killing a dozen people and injuring almost 100. In 2013, there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon which killed six people and injured 280.
The terror organisations who targeted these events all had different agendas, and the casualty list is substantial, but does that mean terrorist specifically target sporting events as part of their agenda, or do they do it simply because of the attention targeting them can bring?
“The circumstances of each sporting event are different and some may indeed exhibit a higher terrorist risk profile than other public gatherings in the same city or even country. Let’s take cricket, for example; the risk of an attack against an international match at a stadium in Pakistan could easily be seen to be more likely than an attack against another target in that city,” Nick Piper, director of Signal Risk, a security risk consultancy, explains to the Daily Maverick.
“The reasons for this are numerous, but include the high attention value of the target, and the poor security situation at the venue (or associated venues).
“So, some sporting events could be seen to be more at risk than other public gatherings in the same city, but these events are generally in the minority.”
Anyone who has attended sporting event anywhere in the world will probably have a story to tell of being frisked by security. However, there are instances where security is relatively lax. This writer has attended several matches at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium and has never been searched. In some rare cases, members of the media pass through gates of sporting events without being searched. Terrorists groups are highly organised, and if they wanted to launch a full-scale attack inside a stadium it is not unthinkable that they would be able to obtain access through media channels.
The reasons why terror groups focus on sporting events are varied, as Piper and the list of different events targeted show. For some extremist groups – like Islamic State – sport is completely against the ideologies they are trying to project. Some people incorrectly believe that sport is prohibited by Islam as a religion, but this is a falsity. There are countless examples of professional sportspeople who are Muslim. It is only terror organisations who prohibit it, not the religion. But all terrorists have one thing in common: to spread fear en masse, meaning sporting events become an easy and desirable target.
“Sporting events are also attractive targets from a psychological point of view, as they’re a place where people often go to relax, enjoy themselves and feel safe, surrounded by thousands of people enjoying the same thing. By attacking sporting events terrorists seek to invert this, to make ordinary citizens fear going to these events or attending any large public gatherings, thus paralysing society to an extent,” says Darren Oliver, senior correspondent with the African Defence Review.
So, while sporting events might not be disproportionately at risk or targeted, they do remain a risk, especially when there is global attention, does that mean that there is a greater risk of an attack at Euro 2016, which is set to be held in France?
“I would argue that the overall terrorism risk level for Euro 2016 hasn’t changed markedly following last week’s attacks in Paris. The city was considered to be prone to the events we witnessed last week, with many analysts (including myself) considering it only a matter of time before a major attack. The risk going forward is arguably the same as it was before 13 November 2015,” Piper explains.
“The level of security anticipated at Euro 2016 will go a long way to reducing the elevated baseline risk; this will constrain both large coordinated groups (such as IS) and especially lone-wolf actors in their efforts to attack major targets. But, security cannot adequately guard all public spaces in host cities. These remain the most susceptible to an attack, as they were before the tournament and as they will be afterwards,” he adds.
But sport has its own way of dealing with tragedy and threats and does have a role to play in combatting the scourge of terrorism. Through all the horror, one thing has remained true: sport will always triumph. Even with international sport currently burdened in more scandals than it can remember, fans and players have come together in defiant stand of unity in the wake of these attacks. From the English belting out the French anthem to the two teams sticking together in those changing rooms: sport brings people together like little else can.
And this can only be a good thing, because if there is one thing terrorists hate more than liberty, it is unity. DM
Photo: Players (R) of Norway and players of Hungary observe a minute of silence for victims of the Paris attacks and for two Hungarian soccer players who died last week before the UEFA Euro 2016 qualification playoff second leg match Hungary vs Norway in Groupama Arena in Budapest, Hungary, 15 November 2015. EPA/Szilard Koszticsak.