Pulse of the Games: Will riots affect 2012?


Remember how awful the "edgy," graffiti-like logo for the 2012 Olympics looked when it was unveiled? This week's street rioting in London makes it seem like an even poorer choice. Meanwhile, a "revised" 2012 logo is going around. I wish I knew who is responsible because I'd like to extend my congratulations for the brilliant spoof.

How are the London riots affecting plans for next summer's Olympics? First of all, just where are the riots in relation to the venues? As this Associated Press story describes, the riots spread this week to Hackney, one of five boroughs encompassing the one-square-mile Olympic Park, site of the Olympic Stadium (opening and closing ceremonies and track and field), as well as the velodrome, aquatics center, basketball arena, handball arena and main media centers. According to the AP story, Monday's violence took place about four miles from the park.

Guardian reporter Dave Hill lives in Hackney and provides a good perspective in the paper's Olympic blog:

How fretful should people be? The [AP] piece quotes Tony Travers of the London School of Economics:

"You can imagine how stretched the police would be if this were to occur during the Olympics, so I think this will create a worry within City Hall and the Home Office. It's not so much that this might happen again -- unlikely -- as that it reminds the people in charge that while the Olympic Games are going on, any other major event is going to be complicated."

Sound thoughts. It's worth adding that the disorder, though widespread, was mostly localized in parts of the city that seem unlikely to be priority destinations for Olympic visitors, and that the objects of the rioters' ire were police officers and property rather than passing foreign visitors.

As a longtime Hackney resident I should add that although crime remains an issue locally, I do not cower in fear of it and very much like living here. It would be wildly alarmist to conclude from the riots that Olympic London will be a place of constant, inescapable criminality. Nonetheless, it seems that such worries are going to have to be addressed.''

The Guardian also quotes the Metropolitan Police Authority's lead officer for the 2012 Games saying that the riots are "extremely worrying. There's an issue around the moral compass of some of these young people. We need to find ways of alleviating the problem.''

A soccer exhibition between England and the Netherlands at Wembley Stadium -- another Olympic venue, was called off Wednesday because police were needed elsewhere for the riots. Also, officials are trying to decide whether to play the scheduled opening of the English Premier League this weekend.

Amid all this, several Olympic test events are going on this week. Test matches for women's beach volleyball were held in central London near Scotland Yard and the prime minister's home at No. 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. So you had bikini-clad women playing in the sand in one part of the city while looters and rioters in hoodies trashed storefronts elsewhere, but hey, life goes on.

The New York Times spoke with American volleyball player April Ross on playing in the test matches: "If we didn't see the riots on the news, we wouldn't have any idea that they were going on. ... We keep asking everyone: 'How far away are the riots? Are we safe?' But the people at the hotel always tell us that they are miles and miles away. So we are lucky because a lot of venues are probably a lot closer."

Asked whether she was concerned for her safety, Olympic volleyball hopeful Brittany Hochevar told the AP, "Not really, I live in L.A. It's nothing I haven't seen myself.''

And finally, a spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee told the media it has complete confidence the Games will go on safely. He said security is a top priority for the IOC, but the responsibility is for the local authorities. (In other words, "Go ahead lads, we'll be right behind you!")

All of this reminds me of security worries leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Prior to the Games, ESPN reporters were required to attend an all-day security and first-aid course led by former British special forces.

"You need to take a grab bag everywhere," the security specialists told us. "In it, you should have your first-aid kit, your passport, a torch, bottled water, a respirator and enough money to buy a plane ticket home."

By the time we got to Athens, we had been told to avoid taxis, the Metro, driving private cars and even walking ("Athens drivers don't stop," the manager of my apartment there told me).

Athens spent $1.5 billion on security, or 15 times the amount spent for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and a half-billion more than London plans (this must have really helped the debt crisis in Greece). The 2004 Olympics employed 45,000 security personnel to protect 10,500 athletes. No wonder the U.S. men's basketball team played so poorly that summer -- no one could get an open shot at the basket.

The result was not only a terrorism-free Olympics, but also a very sparsely attended Olympics because so many fans had been scared off by the security concerns. It wound up being perhaps the most pleasant Summer Olympics I've covered because the crowds were down so much. It was easy to buy tickets from scalpers for far under face value (and my wife and I did).

One difference between the security concerns for London and Athens is that in 2004, the worries were mostly over terrorists coming into Greece to commit their violence. This week prompts worries over local citizens creating security problems.

So how will this play out? The fact is, no one knows. But I think it's important not to overreact, especially with almost a year left for conditions to change. Security is always a huge concern before the Olympics and is rarely an issue once they are actually held.

Let's hope that's the case again.