Olympic Games Security: Conventional Wisdom on Safety at Public Venues

08/06/2008 |

Large public venues have more demanding security programs than most buildings because these iconic structures are often considered terrorist targets. With sound planning and preparation, they can also be safe havens during a disaster.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

August may be the slow, sultry, dog days of summer, but history – and the schedule of events planned for the rest of 2008 – indicates that the United States and other parts of the world are preparing for a state of heightened alert due to the prospect of potential terrorist attacks or acts of violence in the months ahead. Prime targets for such attacks are large public gatherings of people, dignitaries, and the media, such as at the Beijing Olympics, the U.S. Democratic and Republican conventions, U.S. presidential campaign events, and the transition of power in the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, when the new president takes office.

2008 Beijing Olympics
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, on Aug. 8 through 24, will provide the world a firsthand look into a country with an uneven record on human rights. China, with 1.3 billion people, the most populous nation on earth, sought the Olympics to showcase its advancements in the global arena.

Beijing’s spectacular portfolio of dramatic new iconic buildings by leading global architects, timed for the Olympics, has provided shimmering images of architectural expression though the innovative use of form, materials, and structure. From the National Stadium (known as the Bird’s Nest), designed by Herzog & de Meuron, and the cubic National Swimming Center, by PTW and Arup, to the National Center for Performing Arts (known as The Egg) by Paul Andreu, and the Central China Television (CCTV) Building by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Arup, the many new urban and Olympic venues have captured the exuberance of the Games and the attention of a global audience.

At the same time, many hoped the selection of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics would be a harbinger of freedom of speech and freedom to gather in public places, but this does not appear to be the case. Media reports about intrusive security measures – at the airport and in the city – along with government Internet censorship and electronic spying devices in Beijing hotel rooms, have cast a pall over what could’ve been a new era of openness and individual rights.

The iconic National Stadium is in the middle of a large park, providing opportunities for creating adequate setback from the streets and mitigating threats of vehicle-borne explosives. After the Games, the architects hope to see the building become a public forum and visual anchor for the nearby community of housing towers; however, the Chinese government wants to build a fence around the stadium to eliminate the openness. A local developer has proposed an underground shopping mall at one end of the stadium, which offers more public access and potential threats during major events.

The CCTV building, owned by the state television authority, is also subject to limited public access. CCTV’s directors want to close off two public streets through the site and restrict the plaza to employees. Without knowing the details or reasons behind this plan, it’s possible that these concerns are based on the need for standoff, or setbacks from the road, to mitigate the impact of vehicular threats, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and protesting crowds.

Award-winning architects who expect unlimited creative freedom to design global monuments without any outside intervention surely view such directives as unwelcome intrusions. Large public venues have more demanding security programs than most buildings because these iconic structures are often considered terrorist targets. With sound planning and preparation, they can also be safe havens during a disaster.

1972 Munich Games
The 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich proved to be deadly after 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinians. Since then, security has been a major concern at the Olympics. When thousands of athletes, media, dignitaries, and huge crowds in iconic buildings are together in one place for 2 weeks, that adds up to a high-value target for any number of terrorist groups seeking to make a statement.

Several events in China have raised concerns about public safety during the Games. Chinese officials, anxious to ensure the Olympics would be safe in the city of 17 million, have thrown down a smothering blanket of security.

On Aug. 4, 2008, a vehicle rammed into a Chinese police station in western China, and attackers threw grenades, killing 32 people – the deadliest attack on security forces in recent times. Chinese counterterrorism experts claim that the country tracks a number of terrorist groups, from Muslim separatists, Al Qaeda, and Falun Gong to ethnic Chinese.

“From a safety and security perspective, the Beijing Olympics are the third major Olympic event to occur outside the United States since 9/11. At the previous two events in Athens and Turin, a security and crisis response operations center was centrally located at the Games, clear event planning and crisis response roles and responsibilities for participating agencies were spelled out beforehand, and planning for Olympic-related security expenditures was accomplished early,” says security consultant Richard P. Grassie, CPP, President, Techmark Security Integration Inc., Rockland, MA.

“Given the political situation in China and the discontent emanating from Tibet and other regions, one would hope that the Chinese took these lessons learned from previous Olympics seriously; however, the attack in the desert oasis town of Kashgar, the city near the Afghan-Pakistan border where the Aug. 4 ramming and explosives attack resulted in 16 officers being killed and another 16 injured, is a chilling harbinger of events likely to occur before and after the start of the Games. China has mobilized thousands of police, military, and local residents as part of a huge security plan for the capital, but there is a vast portion of the country where such precautions have not been implemented. If China has taken mostly paramilitary oriented steps necessary to prevent and respond to terrorist acts in Beijing and throughout the country during the Games, the risks to the country are huge and the vulnerabilities apparent,” Grassie observes.

It’s a fine line between balancing public safety and security to protect citizens from terrorism, and respecting civil liberties in a free society.

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