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Back to Archives | Back to April 2012 Contents 

Anticipating Safety and Security at Large-Scale Sporting Events

By Kathleen M. O’Toole, Chief Inspector, Garda Síochána Inspectorate, Dublin, Ireland, and former Boston, Massachusetts, Police Commissioner; and Lord John Arthur Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, Executive Chairman, Monitor Quest, London, England, and former Commissioner, London Metropolitan Police

eople throughout the world—regardless of their culture, religion, or political preferences—are passionate about sports. Each year, sports enthusiasts funnel billions of dollars into the global sports industry by attending sporting events and purchasing sports-related merchandise. There is likely no other common interest that attracts the level of worldwide media coverage as is devoted to sports. While the societal benefits of sports are immeasurable, the global appeal of a major sporting event represents an attractive target for those seeking to maximize the impact of malicious strikes in the name of individual, political, or terrorist causes.

Security planning for major sports events has become more challenging and sophisticated in recent decades, particularly since the 9/11 attacks. In remembering the 1972 attack at the Munich Olympics,1 law enforcement understands the threat to major sporting events is not new but has been intensely magnified by globalization. Threats to an event’s security are not just local; they can come from anywhere in the world. In addition to homegrown and international terror threats, there are many other complicated safety and security issues that must be addressed when planning major sports events. It is incumbent on host nations and cities to devote sufficient priority to ensuring the safety and the security of athletes, officials, spectators, and members of the community.

Developing an effective safety and security plan for a world-class sporting event is a monumental and costly task. Consider the magnitude of the upcoming 2012 London Olympics. More than 14,000 athletes from 205 countries will participate in the games between July 27 and August 12.2 There are more than 150 designated Olympic venues and training camps in the greater London area.3 In addition to the many fans attending the games, global television is expected to reach 4 billion viewers.4

In August 2011, Forbes reported that the total cost of hosting the London Olympics will be $18.2 billion. Of that, the security budget is reported to be $1.6 billion. An estimated 46,500 security personnel will be deployed, including 12,000 police officers, 13,500 UK military personnel, and 21,000 private security personnel.5

While few police chiefs will face the extraordinary challenge of planning for the Olympic Games, many will be involved in other world-class events. As the authors of this article rose through the ranks of their respective police organizations, they had responsibility for the safety and the security planning and operations of many such events in the United States and abroad. They have learned valuable lessons from their positive and negative experiences. While they also acknowledge that each host venue has unique cultural and operational characteristics that must be considered during the planning process, they have concluded that there are best practices that will apply in every instance, regardless of the jurisdiction. This article outlines key principles they believe are most important to ensure safe events.

Security planning for a major sporting event should commence as soon as the venue is announced, if not before. Cities should have existing blueprints for majo r events that can be modified and adapted for specific circumstances. Experiences and lessons learned at previous events are invaluable and can be shared to optimize security planning for future events. Security officials should study after-action reports from previous events and, if possible, visit and interact with their counterparts in other host cities. One resource available to support this effort is the International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS), based in Doha, Qatar and available online at The ICSS was established in 2010 to facilitate the global transfer of best security practices for major sporting events. The ICSS gathers and publishes ongoing contributions from representatives of international sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It also incorporates into its work the experience of police chiefs and other security professionals from around the world.

Organizers may have many years to develop a comprehensive security plan for an event such as the Olympics or World Cup soccer. For instance, the IOC announced its London 2012 decision in July 2005. In contrast, planners may have only days to prepare for events such as the Football Association Challenge Cup in England or the Major League Baseball World Series in the United States and Canada. In either case, having boilerplate plans that can be adapted to specific circumstances will make planning and preparation more efficient. Such plans should incorporate and prioritize the following:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Comprehensive Planning
  • Intelligence and Information Sharing
  • Public Order Strategy


Police chiefs and other law enforcement officials may think they have the right to lead in preparation and operations, but it is increasingly necessary to communicate and cooperate effectively with other stakeholders to design and execute safe, enjoyable, high-quality events. First and foremost, effective partnerships must be established between event managers and safety and security providers. This will facilitate communication and reduce suspicion and distrust. Turf wars between organizations must be avoided as they inevitably lead to inefficiencies, duplication of efforts, and serious gaps in safety and security plans. A multiagency steering committee and appropriate subcommittees should be designated. Government agencies usually lead the planning process; however, they must always work closely with clubs and organizing committees that have responsibilities within stadiums and venues. Roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined as early as possible. All parties must recognize that they are working toward a common goal and must aim for maximum cooperation.


Effective communication is vital to ensuring a trouble-free event. An interactive communication strategy and an outreach plan should be developed as early as possible. Planners must communicate effectively with all event stakeholders including fans, athletes, organizing committees, and sponsors. Organizers should also consider establishing lines of communication with a variety of other groups including trade unions, media representatives, civil liberties organizations, and student groups.

Police and other planners should carefully consider fan experiences and input. Empowering fans and excluding troublemakers should be approached as complementary strategies. The majority of law-abiding, responsible spectators should not be penalized for the bad behavior of the minority. Engagement with fan organizations will help planners understand the needs and the desires of spectators and communicate the reasoning for particular safety and security decisions. If fans understand why certain procedures and policies are in place, they are more likely to comply.

Engaging a wide variety of groups at an early stage fosters a cooperative approach to security, as opposed to positioning law enforcement in an adversarial role. Moreover, this can enhance overall safety and security as groups work to inform, advise, and provide for their own members. For example, some may assist by discouraging public order violations and hosting responsible victory celebrations.

Needless to say, effective interaction with media organizations also facilitates the broadcast of timely, accurate, and helpful information to the general population. It is important to engage the media as an ally to the greatest extent possible.

Comprehensive Planning

The safety and security plan should be a component of the overall event plan. In other words, all planning efforts must be integrated to ensure seamless, successful operations. Organizers should prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. The process should anticipate all possible hazards that may occur during the event. New security threats are always emerging: physical threats; cyberthreats; and those associated with organized crime, such as illegal betting, financial crime, and fraud. Therefore, planning must be comprehensive, multilayered, and multifaceted.

Plans should be tested against a variety of scenarios well in advance, allowing organizers to identify gaps and develop solutions to address weaknesses in the plan. Scenarios should address, but not be limited to, the following topics:

  • Major crowd disturbances

  • Natural disasters

  • Manmade disasters or attacks

  • Medical emergencies

Of these, major crowd disturbances are the most likely and can present significant threats to safety and security. An effective intelligence operation coupled with a well-defined public order strategy will mitigate this risk.

Effective Intelligence and Information Sharing

Many local law enforcement agencies do not have sufficient resources to single-handedly address all of the safety and the security demands associated with a major sporting event. Collaboration and communication among local, national, and international agencies are essential and will help planners identify potential threats and avert major incidents. An effective intelligence and information sharing strategy is a fundamental component of a proper security plan.

In the United States, some major events are designated National Special Security Events. In such cases, authority for coordinating security devolves to the U.S. Secret Service. The designation also provides corresponding access to federal resources to be deployed alongside local agencies.6 INTERPOL provides support to host nations through the deployment of International Major Event Support Teams to assist in the communication of vital police information and the identification of potential troublemakers. Many sports federations also provide targeted support and information. For example, the Union of European Football Associations has developed an integrated database of best practices, the Safety and Security Expert Tool, which is available to member nations.

Security for events also must extend into the online world. At the London Olympics, the Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS’s) Police Central E-Crime Unit will handle cybersecurity. The MPS plans to establish two special units dedicated to cybercrime during the Olympics. One of these units will be responsible for preventing e-crime, such as hacking, and the other will be responsible for preventing ticket fraud.

Further, the MPS’s Police Central E-Crime Unit, in partnership with Atos Origin—the information technology (IT) partner for the Olympic Games—has launched the Olympic Technology Lab, which allows IT system testing in simulations of the games at 36 different venues. Ensuring the security of the 900 servers, 1,000 network and security devices, and 9,500 computers that will be used during the games requires coordination and information sharing.

There must be clear channels and protocols for reporting and responding to suspicious activity. These should be reinforced and tested prior to the event during joint training and exercises that include participants from all safety and security agencies—police, fire, emergency medical, emergency management, and private-sector response teams. To control costs, some valuable training can be provided electronically. In the United Kingdom, for example, the National Policing Improvement Agency arranged for online safety and security training for police, fire, and ambulance personnel in preparation for the Olympics.

Security planners should not underestimate the value of community engagement in advance of major events. Public campaigns, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s If You See Something, Say Something campaign, encourage members of the community to report concerns and suspicious activity to the police.

Public Order Strategy

An effective public order strategy should include a tiered approach to crowd management. Unless necessary, police and security officials should avoid adversarial approaches to spectators, demonstrators, and celebrants, which often causes situations to escalate. Rather, stewards and law enforcement personnel should take a friendly and cooperative approach to fans while remaining vigilant for early signs of trouble. A tiered strategy for public order may incorporate the following elements:

  • Stadium stewarding

    • Should make well-trained stewards responsible for ordinary crowd management

    • Should maintain limited visible presence of uniformed police inside the stadium

  • Visible community police officers
    • Should wear high-visibility jackets and soft hats

    • Should take a high-visibility, nonconfrontational approach

  • Mobile field forces
    • Should be defined as rapid response, trouble-shooting teams

    • Should be highly mobile, mounted on bicycles, motorcycles, or horses

  • Riot police

    • Should be readily available on standby

    • Should be invisible until required

    • Should be the last line of policing

The aim of this approach is to work with spectators and fans, not against them. Positive interaction between fans and security personnel will promote good behavior and facilitate the identification and management of problems before they intensify. A safe, effective, and nonconfrontational approach to crowd management also encourages a sense of responsibility among fans, improving their behavior and decreasing the likelihood of trouble.

Strategic Security

A comprehensive, multilayered security strategy will significantly increase the likelihood of a successful event. Planners must consider the complementary roles of people, procedures, and technology, effectively integrating them to create an efficient, effective safety and security package. Where critical, redundancies should be built into the system to reduce the possibility of gaps created by human oversight or technological breakdown.

Security planners should maximize available technologies. In London, for instance, a surveillance network of approximately 500,000 closed-circuit television cameras throughout the city will allow police, intelligence, and military services to monitor and access live video feeds from a central command center.7 Existing cameras have been integrated, and many have been upgraded to include microphones for voice monitoring and recording.

Careful consideration also should be given to emerging technologies that increase the efficiency of security checks and widen the scope of the secure area. For example, a new spatial information infrastructure (SII) system has been developed by the British Transport Police, the agency responsible for safety and security of the U.K. railways. The SII captures geospatial data and information feeds received from disparate sources and allows the British Transport Police to interface with other London 2012 partner organizations to manage large volumes of geospatial data efficiently.

The safety and security strategy for a major sporting event must be based on a balanced approach that includes prevention, intervention, and enforcement. Developing robust prevention and preparedness capabilities at official venues will significantly reduce the chances of criminality or disruption. British authorities will set up special pedestrian screening areas similar to airport security checkpoints, vehicle permit checkpoints at all venue access points, and vehicle screening areas. A designated Olympic route network of designated roads connecting competition and noncompetition venues—reserved for transportation of Olympic athletes and officials—will be established, with vehicles in the network monitored by remote tracking and surveillance equipment. While these and other enhanced security measures in the public transportation system—including increased policing, remote surveillance, and security checks—will help greatly reduce the risk of an incident, security teams must prepare for the worst and respond rapidly according to plan when required. In the aftermath of an incident, calm and order must be restored as soon as possible. Planners must anticipate required responses to crises and predict how rapidly teams will recover from episodes and return to standard duties.

In conclusion, the authors certainly do not claim to have all the answers; there is no perfect plan, but they will continue to learn from their collective experiences. ■


1“Munich 1972,”, (accessed February 27, 2012).
2“London 2012 Olympic and Paraolympic Games,” Home Office U.K. Border Agency, (accessed February 27, 2012).
3The latest figures from Organizing Committee show 34 venues ( and 128 confirmed training camps (, for a total of 162 site across the United Kingdom (accessed February 28, 2012).
4Claudio Da Rold, Case Study: 2012 Olympics Presents Formidable IT Multisourcing Challenge (Stamford, Conn.: Gartner, October 2011).
5Patrick Rishe, “How Does London’s Olympics Bill Compare to Previous Games?” Sports Money, Forbes (August 5, 2011), (accessed March 22, 2012).
6The Department of Homeland Security, “Fact Sheet: National Special Security Events,” December 28, 2006.
7Michael Greenberger, “The Need for Closed Circuit Television in Mass Transit Systems,” Law Enforcement Executive Forum (February 2006): 151-156.

Please cite as:

Kathleen M. O’Toole and Lord John Arthur Stevens, "Anticipating Safety and Security at Large-Scale Sporting Events," The Police Chief 79 (April 2012): 20–25.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 4, April 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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