How Safe Is Your Race?
After the Boston bombings and attacks in Europe, how much risk are you taking when you toe the line in a big race? And what’s being done to keep runners and spectators safe from harm?
Sunny, overcast or rainy, marathon day always feels bright. The endorphinfuelled joyousness of the event – the culmination of months of dedication, self-denial and (for friends and families) patient support – imbues these events with an infectious sense of occasion. Marathons and other big races are high-profile symbols of much of what’s best about our way of life. Which, sadly, in the troubled age in which we live, makes them the perfect target.
It’s not just their symbolism that makes them vulnerable, though. Fields are big and getting bigger. Ditto, the crowds. Then there’s the linear, long ‘arenas’; the urban settings; the drawn-out time frames. While stretching prerace or flushed with achievement at the finish, you could be forgiven for looking around and wondering, What if? To those determined to inflict maximum damage on a city’s population, a big marathon is a tempting target.
It happened on April 15, 2013, when two improvised pressure-cooker bombs detonated near the finish of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring 264. Two Chechen brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were, respectively, captured and killed in the manhunt that followed, but the age of innocence in marathon running was gone forever. The Boston Marathon was back the following year, but everything had changed.
‘It was night and day,’ says Dennis Charles, who was at mile 21 when the blasts went off, but, like many, returned to run again the following year in an act of solidarity and defiance. ‘If there was security in 2013, we weren’t really aware of it. In 2014, our team bus pulled up at the start in Hopkinton and we were surrounded by about 150 police and
military security vehicles. There was a sense that this was the new world – that our marathon had kind of been taken from us by all this security. It was daunting and it was scary.’
Boston has set the tone for a ramping up of such measures all over the world. This may have reached its zenith at this year’s Tokyo Marathon in February, where fears of a Boston repeat were increased by the attacks in Paris just a few months before: so there were airport-style scanners for bags; competitors screened with facialrecognition technology; state-ofthe-art tethered drones beaming footage to security personnel on the ground; undercover officers in the field; bomb detection squads; rapid response teams armed with automatic weapons; and interceptor drones trailing giant nets through the skies to bring down suspicious devices. All in all, it resembled something closer to a presidential inauguration than an uplifting celebration of amateur athleticism.
How much is enough?
With ever-greater numbers competing and watching marathons, entry fees escalating and, sadly, no sign of the threats to our safety abating, runners have every right to expect to be protected. But is there not a danger that the scales are tipping too far, that what is intended to reassure may panic and alienate?
Jim Heim, technical director of the New York City Marathon, doesn’t believe so: ‘I actually think that we’re in a climate right now where it’s a case of the more the merrier with security. We think the positives of a large, visible presence outweigh the negatives. Over time, as threat perception perhaps changes, we might start to go the other way again. But where we are now, I don’t see anyone getting upset by anything.’
Heim’s nine-year tenure has brought marked changes to the New York event. Contingency planning and technology have, he says, ‘gone through the roof’ since the attack on the Boston Marathon. ‘ We’re in a different place now,’ he says. Drones are illegal in most of New York City, so aerial monitoring is done by the NYPD, but it’s in the area of communication that the event is setting the pace. A single toll-free number is printed on the 50,000 runners’ bibs and on the 28,000 credentials distributed to volunteers and staff for each event. That connects to a bank of 150 operators at the event’s Race Communication
Centre (RCC), who can dispatch forces to any type of security breach in seconds. With the majority – an estimated 70 per cent – of entrants now running with their phones, it’s the ultimate force multiplier, creating massed ranks of eyes and ears on the ground (even if many of those eyes are more tuned to split times than security breaches).
The race also employs an emergency notification system (ENS) through a company called Send Word Now. This equips it to send blanket messages in an instant via text or email to runners, staff, volunteers and vendors.
Below the surface
The nature of security is never transparent, however. While drawing attention to certain measures is clearly in the interests of some events, there’s plenty going on beneath the surface that the organisers and relevant authorities will not disclose. In New York, the full spectrum of measures to protect runners and spectators is far from public knowledge, but much is being done. ‘The NYPD is never going to talk about their deployments so it’s not something we know about,’ says Heim. ‘Do I think the police have undercover officers running in the race? Of course I do.’
The London Marathon refuses to discuss any element of its operation. ‘ We have a strong policy of not commenting on security,’ was their unequivocal and repeated response. But that isn’t about masking inadequacies. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police was equally reticent. ‘The moment we get drawn into discussing any element of security, we find ourselves in territory we don’t want to be in,’ he said. But presumably security is a priority at major running events such as the London Marathon? ‘Of course.’
Elsewhere in the UK there’s plenty of evidence that the shockwaves of Boston have reshaped event security policy. The organisation of events, even on a regional level, is more stringent; unregistered runners have been clamped down upon; and (often hidden) technology is increasingly being deployed to ensure runners’ safety: responding to a Freedom of Information request, the Police Service of Northern Ireland admitted that it had used Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS) – drones – to help police the Belfast Marathon.
One of the UK’S biggest race organisers is The Great Run Company, which stages 18 events, attracting more than 250,000 runners. Operations director Nigel Gough was one of a number of key players invited to a post-boston seminar in the city in 2014 to establish and share best practice security procedures. He found it insightful, but thinks it’ll be some time before a one-size-fits-all approach is adopted worldwide. ‘Different cultures have different idiosyncrasies, which means different approaches,’ he says. ‘Even within our races in the UK there’s plenty of variation, as certain police forces like to work in certain ways.’
The Great Run Company has focused on increasing video surveillance, particularly around its showpiece events, such as the Great North Run, and honing communication, with an emphasis on instant dissemination of information through social media. Gough also says there has been a profound change in the extra scrutiny that races face, the demands placed on them by the authorities to prove that they’ve gone the extra mile.
‘A good example of this was the Great Manchester Run 10K in May, which came shortly after a dummy bomb was found at Old Trafford, and the Etihad Stadium hosted an England Euro 2016 warmup match,’ he says. ‘That was almost a perfect storm in terms of generating concern. This meant more meetings, more paperwork, extra hoops to jump through to ensure everyone was happy the event was as safe as it could be.’
Of course, for all the resources and contingency planning lavished on the security of such events, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Back in the US, a 2013 Usatoday report on stadium security found that the private security industry – which is used by marathon organisers – is characterised by
The shockwaves of Boston have reshaped event security policy
loose regulation and that people with criminal pasts were sometimes hired as event staff. The potential dangers of this were laid bare in November 2015, when two security workers at a Chicago Bears game were arrested on suspicion of being involved in a scheme to sell access to the stadium to undercover officers. Both had criminal records.
It’s an issue that’s certainly on the radar of race organisers on this side of the Atlantic. Security operations at big UK races are typically made up of a huge number of discrete parts that must dovetail on the day: retained staff; stewards; volunteers; police; fire brigades; medics; traffic police; security for elite athletes and VIPS; the ambulance service; right down to those handing out the water and medals. The bar has been raised for each elements, says Gough.
‘If you were closing a road back in the day, that was done by volunteers. Now, you have to get properly trained stewards. The agencies we use vet their employees and that’s got tighter in recent years, with background checks and more questions being asked of who’s working at the events and what they’re doing.’ It’s especially crucial given that faces tend to change year on year. ‘The security industry is quite transient,’ admits Gough.
The wrong crowd
‘There’s risk everywhere’ is a common refrain when anyone mentions terror fears around public events. It’s one echoed by the running world, whose pragmatism is laced with defiance. Prior to the Paris Marathon in April this year, apprehension had reached unprecedented levels. Given the glut of global terror attacks in recent years, Boston would have seemed like ancient history as runners prepared for the event. Not so the coordinated attacks in the French capital just five months before, which left 137 dead and nearly 400 injured. And then, just as runners were thinking about tapering for the big day, Brussels was hit by deadly attacks on its airport and underground network on March 22.
Writing on the Runner’sworld forum, a Paris-bound runner called Kelly felt duty-bound to broach the subject: ‘I know it’s not a pleasant topic to discuss but I just wanted to know how other runners felt regarding the safety around the Paris Marathon this year. I didn’t want to let it bother me but following a discussion with my very concerned boyfriend, I’m now feeling unsure.’ The responses were immediate and unequivocal: ‘It’s natural to be concerned, but you’re more at risk travelling to the event than running in it’ (statistically true); ‘You’re more likely to die from a heart attack than a terrorist attack’ (ditto); ‘You shouldn’t live your life in fear of these idiots.’
These responses are a telling snapshot of the attitudes of those who train to run marathons. ‘The people who did this messed with the wrong crowd,’ said Boston race director Mike Mcgiffivray.
More proof can be found in the stats. Worldwide marathon participation continues to rise – there were 250,930 applicants for the 2017 London Marathon, up from 247,069 in 2016. And in the face of the horror that preceded it, and during a state of emergency, the Paris Marathon attracted its biggest field to date this year, with 43,000 runners taking part.
There was never any question of cancelling this event, though race director Edouard Cassignol admits they had ‘many, many’ meetings with security agencies in the months leading up to the race aimed at ‘considerably enhancing’ security. Innovations included widespread electronic surveillance, coordinated bag searches, staff equipped with metal detectors, and specialists deployed in the crowd and among runners trained to spot ‘abnormal behaviour’ (well, more abnormal than wanting to put yourself through 26.2 miles of hurt). ‘Everything possible is done by the state, the police and the organisers to ensure that the course, and especially the key points on the route where more crowds are gathered, is safe,’ says Cassignol.
Counting the cost
None of this comes cheap. Security costs for races such as the New York Marathon are estimated to have doubled to $1m since the 2013 attack, and while the big marathons can absorb this, smaller races may struggle. The Portland Marathon in Oregon went ahead in October this year only after a showdown between race organisers and the city’s fire department. The organisers wanted to continue using the emergency response procedures that had served them well for nearly three decades; the fire department wanted to adopt stricter measures rolled out since Boston. The organisers made changes and the race took place. In
September, a pipe bomb exploded in a bin on the course of a New Jersey 5K. No-one was injured, but the race was cancelled and dozens of homes evacuated. Could bolstered security further up the running food chain, paradoxically, be increasing the threat level for smaller events?
And what of spectators? On the surface, it would appear that the defiance of crowds is mirroring that of the participants. Dennis Charles described the noise from those who gathered in Boston in 2014, for example, as ‘absolutely deafening – just insane’. But additional security measures may blunt the spectator experience – that spontaneity that has always set the marathon-watching experience apart.
‘I love marathons,’ says Alice Pelton, a Bermondsey resident who has watched the last eight London Marathons, with the exception of 2013. ‘I find them immensely emotional – like sports day for a whole city, with everyone coming together. But watching London nowadays is less spontaneous, and more effort to navigate.’
At the Chicago Marathon, there’s security screening for everyone entering Grant Park, where the race starts. Elsewhere, spectators have been prohibited from bringing backpacks, glass containers or coolers; asked to submit to bag searches and airport-style security; and, in some cases, encouraged to carry personal items in a clear plastic bag to ‘enhance public safety and speed security screening’.
There have already been concerns expressed by civil liberties groups about the escalation in the use of CCTV cameras at races – a move driven, in part, by the fact that they were instrumental in catching the Boston attackers. And runners and spectators alike can certainly pay an experiential price for enhanced security. ‘There were baggage checks for any member of the public who stepped within several blocks of the finish on Boylston Street,’ says Tim Heming, recalling the 2015 Boston Marathon. ‘Keeping spectators clear of the finish may have lowered the risks of a terrorist attack but it didn’t protect those poor souls from the arctic blasts that whipped in from the Atlantic coast postrace. It’s probably a small price to pay for the greater good but I remember taking rather too long to find my loved one after this race, changing in a hotel foyer and needing to spend an inordinate amount of time cradling a cup of tea in Starbucks to warm up.’
Finding the right balance is key. ‘ We live in complex and challenging times, more so than ever before,’ says Shaun Mccarthy, CEO of the International Centre for Sport Security, based in Doha. ‘Threats are asymmetrical, as recent history has demonstrated. Attacks can come in any form – from a machete to a 30-ton articulated truck. While innovation works in our favour, it also works in the favour of potentially malicious individuals and their imaginations.’
But, adds Mccarthy, ‘it’s important not to be alarmist, and to be realistic and accept there is no such thing as an event that is 100 per cent safe. Arguably, the biggest threat in today’s climate is becoming complacent.’ Gough agrees. ‘The world is a very changed place to how it was 36 years ago when we first staged the Great North Run,’ he says. ‘But, arguably, there’s never been a safer time to be running races. The key message is that we must keep current, and we can’t have any complacency.’
Reassuringly, there seems little danger of that. From the technological wizardry of Tokyo, to the layered complexities of New York and the covert operations of London, a battle is underway to set the gold standard for race security. In January, Patriotsday, a Hollywood movie about the Boston Marathon bombing, will be released. While some would question the sensitivity of releasing the film less than four years after the events it depicts, there’s little doubt that seeing Mark Wahlberg and his co-stars patrolling a marathon finishing line on the big screen could raise public awareness of the issue.
It also helps keep the spotlight on those unheralded individuals who guard our safety at marathons, and silently vie for supremacy over the threats facing us. It’s a race that, for now, seems to have no finish line, but we should take heart that they’re doing everything in their power to stay at least one step ahead.
‘The biggest threat in today’s climate is becoming complacent’
NO CHANCES A runner is scanned at the 2014 New York City Marathon
LINE UP Security at the Chicago Marathon
SKY PATROL Drones were used at the 2016 Tokyo Marathon
REMEMBERING A makeshift memorial after the Boston Marathon bombing
IN THE NEWS Races make tempting targets
CAUGHT Tokyo police demonstrate an interceptor drone
EYE IN THE SKY Watching over the New York City Marathon
OVERSIGHT Security at the London Marathon is more visible than ever
DEFIANCE The 2016 Paris Marathon
CLOSE QUARTERS Police officers run with participants in the Tokyo Marathon