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?

Runner's World (UK) - - Front Page -

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

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