London 2012 – what are the main worries?

Fraud and match fixing a greater concern than terrorism or crowd control!?

The year-end reports in the British media focused substantially on the (positive) impact that the hosting of the Olympic Games might have on the British economy, the image of Britain as a power still be reckoned with, and the mood of the British people. Inevitably, the media reports also dealt with a spectrum of concerns that tend to be linked with such events.

The main topic tended to be the risk that the Games might make London a target for ‘guests’ with less than friendly and peaceful purposes in mind. London has been a particular target of terrorist attacks in recent years, and the additional crowds and extra media attention during the Olympics might tend to create an irresistible temptation. There had been earlier reports that the organizers (LOCOG) and the British authorities had been taking an optimistic approach, at least in terms of those aspects of readiness that tend to be known to the public. For instance, leaving aside the planned police presence, there were suggestions that the LOCOG security forces would be kept at a modest 10.000. This has now been increased to about 24.000. More generally, the authorities go out of their way to be reassuring.

Of course, disturbances do not come just in the form of terrorism. Riots, typically related to social unrest and economic suffering, have taken place in recent years. Similarly, just as in many other locations, organized demonstrations or protest actions have also affect London and Britain. Clearly these are all events that may be occurring spontaneously and at the local level, but often they quite deliberately seek the limelight, and what would then be a better opportunity than the Olympics.

Congestion due to excess crowds can in itself be a problem. London is used to masses of tourists, something that I could notice during the traditional ‘invasion’ around the holidays. But the expected onslaught during the Olympics promises (or threatens…) to be something extraordinary. Olympic cities tend to draw crowds also beyond those who are ticket-holders and sports fans. And an additional problem this time seems to be that events, even in relatively ‘obscure’ sports (which by British standards certainly includes handball), are sold out to an extent that has never been seen before. This means that optimistic visitors will arrive in the hope of picking up miscellaneous tickets upon arrival, only to find that this may be much more difficult than they had expected.

The notion of having masses of frustrated visitors milling around in the streets, restless because they could not get the tickets they wanted, is not an attractive notion in the eyes of the security forces or, for that matter, the British public. But the situation may be somewhat alleviated by the apparent plans of an unusually large number of Londoners to take their vacation elsewhere in the country or abroad, precisely to escape the drawbacks of the Olympics rather than staying behind to ‘enjoy the atmosphere’. This might also constitute a saving grace in terms of reducing the risk for massive traffic congestions. Most Olympic events will be concentrated to an area far out to the East of central London. But while the heart of London may thus be less affected, the question is whether brand new roads and options for public transit will turn out to be adequate in the vicinity of the area where the main arenas are situated.

Awkwardly enough, on balance both LOCOG and other British authorities see fraud and match fixing as perhaps the main threat to successful and enjoyable Olympic Games. Britain, through the recent rise in problems of this nature in popular sports such as football, cricket and tennis, has become a focal point for cynical and ruthless illegal betting activities initiated by criminal groups from East Asia and various parts of the Commonwealth. They are firmly entrenched in the world of sports in Britain, and it will be a very tough task for IOC and LOCOG in collaboration with various police forces to try to stay ahead of this type of activities. Fraud related to illegal betting may not necessarily target the best-known athletes and the fight for the medals. More obscure events, results, and partial outcomes are easier but just as lucrative targets. Moreover, the bribery and manipulations may then involve athletes and officials who are carrying on more in the background, who come from poor circumstances and have relatively much less to lose, The criminals in this field know how to spot vulnerability and how to take advantage of it. Let us hope that the countermeasures will be effective!