Security has been the cardinal virtue of this Olympics. However, amid a private security fiasco, the militarisation of the UK and multiple arrests, Owni plunges into a London under heavy guard, armed only with an infographic.
For the XXXth Olympiad, which opened last Friday in London, organisers have placed a heavy emphasis on security. One figure that illustrates this emphatic approach to security: for every one athlete competing, there are four security personnel working at the Games (see our visualisation below).
The British Army is providing 17,000 personnel, 70% more than the number of British troops currently deployed in Afghanistan. Some 3,500 of these soldiers were called up at the last moment, bailing out the private security company G4S, undisputed gold medalists in the field of cock-ups.
“Fiasco”, “shambles”, “inexcusable”, “unacceptable”, “amateurish”. British MP’s didn’t have words strong enough to describe the “humiliating” failure of G4S, reported the Guardian in an acerbic article. Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, confessed to having had little trust in G4S beforehand, and “now we don’t have any at all“.
The private security giant had won the tender and was, initially, to provide 2,000 guards, a contract worth £86 million British pounds (about €108 million). The deal was revised upwards in December, finally reaching over five times the number that the company originally undertook to provide – 10,400 in personnel and a bill amounting to £284 million (€362 million).
But as the opening ceremony drew near, G4S announced that it would be unable honour its commitments. On July 12, two weeks before the start of the summer festival of sport, the company stated that its recruitment and training goals couldn’t be met. It was a tough blow for Olympic organisers to take, for whom the security of the Games was a top priority. Memories of the 2005 bombings in London are still very clear. The day before the explosions in the underground system and on a number 30 bus, the IOC had announced that London’s bid to host the 2012 Games had been accepted.
In the face of the G4S fiasco, the authorities launched a public relations damage limitation operation, with a lot of faith placed in the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. The London 2012 chairman Lord Sebastian Coe seemed confident.
We will work very hard, we will remedy this. Security will not be compromised. This is not about numbers, this is about the mix [of staff].
The Culture Minister echoed this. “It is completely normal” for a contractor to fail to meet its commitments on a project of this size, said Jeremy Hunt, who mentioned, along the way, the “honourable” behaviour of G4S. MP’s, who summoned the company’s director Nick Buckles to a hearing, did not share this view, and Nick Buckles himself expressed regret for having accepted the contract.
The result has vindicated the sceptics. The Guardian reported that tests to join the G4S Olympics security team could be taken several times by those who failed at the first attempt. Apprentice guards were able to openly discuss answers among themselves in full view of supervisors. As for the use of scanners, future officers received minimal training, 20 minutes, to learn how to detect weapons.
The G4S fiasco has had two serious consequences. Firstly, it has ruined G4S’s chances of securing a tender for the management of nine prisons and the privatisation of policing in Surrey and the West Midlands, a record contract of €1.5 billion. Secondly, it has led to the militarisation of the country for the duration of the Olympic Games.
Faced with the shortcomings of G4S, the authorities decided to call in the army. 17,000 soldiers have been deployed, a situation unheard of since the Second World War. Surface to air missiles were installed at several sites inside the capital, including the rooftops of apartment buildings.
The inhabitants of Fred Wigg Tower in East London, tried to oppose the missile installations. Their complaints fell on deaf ears at the High Court, which ruled in favour of the security operation. One of the residents’ lawyers, Martin Howe, told the French news website Rue89.
This is the first time in the history of Britain, during peacetime, that troops and weapons have been stationed in a residential area, among ordinary citizens. The last time was during the Blitz in 1941 when the Luftwaffe came. That was a very different situation.
In Lexington, north of central London, a water tower houses a battery of high speed surface to air missiles with a range of 5 km. A warship, HMS Ocean, is anchored in the waters of the river Thames, and transports combat helicopters. Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond said that “personnel deployed on the ground will be supported by high speed jets and helicopters that will protect the skies over London during the Games“.
Anti-terrorism agencies have not been left cooling their heels during preparations. In a rare public statement, the head of MI5 warned that the Olympics were “an attractive target” for terrorist groups, adding the Orwellian flourish, “Planning for the future is always planning for uncertainty“.
The Games will not be an easy target and the fact that we have disrupted multiple terrorist plots here and abroad in recent years demonstrates that the UK as a whole is not an easy target for terrorism.
Scotland Yard has combined its words with action. In late June, two suspects were questioned by the Anti-Terrorism Branch of the Metropolitan Police. They had been seen paddling a canoe near the Olympic Village and firing guns in Essex, east of London. A few days later, though formally unrelated to the Olympics, seven other suspects were arrested in the north of England.
The data and sources used in the infographic are available to consult by following this link.