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Past is prelude: Protecting the Paris Olympics amid global uncertainty

For anyone protecting major events, the known threats are easy to track. The unknowns manifest in blind spots that can cause unwanted surprises

OLY Paris Olympics Security

Police officers patrol the Trocadero plaza near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. France says it has asked 46 countries if they can supply more than 2,000 police officers to help secure the Paris Olympics. Organizers are finalizing security planning for the July 26-Aug. 11 Games, the French capital’s first in a century.

Michel Euler/AP

By Fred Burton and Chuck Randolph

Ahead of Summer 2024, the world’s attention is focused on Paris as the countdown to the 2024 Olympic Games begins, while the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles also looms on the horizon.

As anticipation grows, spectators, global news media, corporate sponsors, and the French gendarmerie and security services are on high alert, all keenly aware of the dynamic and complex threats accompanying such a global event. While many threats are well-known and can be successfully managed, the unknowns cause greater challenges.

International special events pose tactical and strategic security challenges that require a unique blend of government and private sector involvement. Beyond the spectacle displayed on screens lies a world of planning, logistics and coordination rarely seen by the public.

Lessons from history

Why the need for such thorough preparation? History serves as a stern teacher, reminding us that even the smallest oversight can lead to significant consequences. These historical consequences have shaped the approach to today’s special event security operations. Intelligence agencies and corporate security teams meticulously assess potential risks, drawing on past incidents to inform their security strategies and heighten awareness among those responsible for protecting athletes, spectators, events and venues.

The origin of many of the major event security operations seen today can be traced back to 1972, when the Black September Organization (BSO), a radical Palestinian terrorist group, infiltrated the Olympic Athletes Village to kidnap and murder 11 Israeli athletes in Munich, Germany. This tragic event marked the first international act of terror broadcast live around the world. It served as a wake-up call to all security professionals about the threats and vulnerabilities that may be present during major events. 

At 4:30 a.m. on September 5, 1972, a band of Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage at the Summer Olympics in Munich. More than 900 million viewers followed the event on television, as authorities desperately negotiated with the terrorists.
Award-winning journalist Aaron J. Klein tells the complete story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and the Israeli counterterrorism operation it spawned.

Subsequent incidents highlighted the variety of tactical threats facing major event planners. In 1975, a group of terrorists supported by Libya and led by the notorious “Carlos the Jackal,” assaulted an OPEC Summit in Vienna, initially attacking police officers and security guards before taking at least 60 attendees hostage and leaving three dead.

Several later incidents highlighted the threats credentialed insiders can pose to major events. In 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated during his country’s annual victory parade celebrations by terrorists disguised as military personnel. During the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles, a police officer was later convicted of placing a hoax bomb aboard a bus transporting Turkish athletes. The 1996 Centennial Park bombing during the Atlanta Olympic Games emphasized how vulnerable soft target venues outside of the hardened protection perimeter can be.

More recently, the 2013 bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon left three dead and dozens of others critically injured, including an MIT police officer. The incident demonstrated the dangers of insecure areas with large crowds. In 2009, six Pakistani police officers and two civilians were killed and six members of the Sri Lankan national cricket team were injured when terrorists opened fire on the team bus as it arrived at a stadium in Lahore, exposing vulnerabilities in athlete route planning and transportation.

As the world prepares for Paris — especially in light of ongoing issues in Gaza, Iran and Ukraine — these historical incidents serve as sobering reminders of the critical importance of comprehensive threat assessments and robust security measures.

Case studies and after action reports that examine the lessons learned from a multitude of previous events and incidents.

Potential threats to the 2024 Olympic Games

From a protective intelligence and tactical standpoint, terrorism looms as the foremost life and safety concern for the Paris Olympics, mainly influenced by the reverberations of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. However, there is also a substantial risk of disruptions that could become violent due to protest activities surrounding the games.

The Olympics attract global attention, which will in turn attract activists seeking attention for their cause on a global scale. This may even include protests and disruptions caused by the athletes themselves, as seen in many Olympic game ceremonies over the years.

At the strategic level, the current threat landscape presents formidable challenges, with global tensions simmering due to events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, disputes in the South China Sea, and heightened rhetoric from Iran and North Korea. Despite these concerns, there is a cautious acknowledgment that state sponsors of terror have limited incentive to disrupt major events directly, with the primary risk arising from fringe and activist elements seeking to exploit the occasion for their agendas.

Intelligence agencies and corporate security teams will draw on past incidents to inform their strategies and heighten awareness among those tasked with protection. U.S. Government stakeholders — like the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) and DSS’ Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) — work in conjunction with international law enforcement and security partners, major corporate sponsors and Non-Governmental Organizations to ensure the smooth execution of each event and the protection of each venue. Their seamless collaboration is the backbone of our security efforts, combined with global intelligence collection efforts by many nations. In sum, all countries have skin in the game to ensure their athletes are safe and secure.

Behind the scenes, a concerted effort is underway as threat analysts, fusion centers, and international security and intelligence services collaborate to develop comprehensive contingency and emergency action plans for any likely problems. They focus on threats identified in earlier attacks and threat assessments, spanning from ensuring the positive identification of athletes, staff and VIPs to mapping out transportation, medical and SWAT response procedures, and secure venues. Deliberations also encompass travel routes, secure chutes and designated safe havens. There are also preparations for geopolitically delicate situations, including how police and protection agents should respond to athlete or team defections.

Operational preparations extend defensive concentric rings to implement more advanced security measures, including explosive detection protocols, counter-sniper overwatch and advanced surveillance technology, to include metal detectors, HazMat, image matching and license plate readers. Additionally, vigilant monitoring of threat actors and terrorist groups, along with drone detection measures, is already in progress. Known persons of interest will be watched carefully in the shadows by surveillance teams, in case the threat actors attempt to move towards any venue location.

For anyone protecting major events, the known threats are easy to track. The unknowns manifest in blind spots that can cause unwanted surprises. On a positive note, the protection of special events is much more holistic and robust today than the world had in Munich or Atlanta. With the eyes of the world on Paris, the unknowns will keep everyone in public safety watching.

About the authors

Fred Burton is a former police officer, supervisory special agent, New York Times best-selling author, and Executive Director, Protective Intelligence, Ontic. Burton supervised protective intelligence operations for the State Department at the Atlanta Olympic Games and many other special events, from Middle East Peace Conferences to the United Nations General Assemblies. He’s served on the front lines of high-profile investigations like the hunt for and arrest of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bombing; the 1988 plane crash of PAK-1 that killed U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel and Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq; and the search for Americans kidnapped by Hezbollah in Beirut, Lebanon. Burton was selected by Security Magazine as one of the Most Influential People in Security in 2021 and his books have been featured in thrillers by Brad Thor, Jack Carr, and “Tom Clancy’s Target Acquired” by Don Bentley.

Chuck Randolph is the Chief Security Officer at Ontic. Previously, he led Microsoft’s worldwide executive protection, global intelligence, and event security operations and established its first hybrid threat intelligence unit. Randolph is also a retired Lieutenant Colonel (U.S. Army). Beyond his corporate role, Randolph is the Chairperson of the Critical Infrastructure Research Forum (CIRF) at Sam Houston State University, Institute for Homeland Security, the co-founder of the International Protective Security Board (IPSB), and actively involved in the U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

NEXT: We can’t plan for everything. But with the right people, policies, training, and supervision in place we can best handle whatever may come our way during special events. Here’s some tips from Gordon Graham: