Opening Ceremony London 2012: Why the Militarization of the Olympic Games Will Fail

After much anticipating and preparation, the 2012 Olympics have finally arrived. Not only does this mark the beginning of a showcase of the world’s best athletes and the swelling of London with visitors but also the execution of “Operation Olympics” by the British armed services.

In an unprecedented peacetime operation, the British Army this week has pledged to add a further 1200 boots on the ground in addition to the 17,000 already promised. On standby will be an amphibious assault ship and four typhoon fighters ready to intercept unauthorized aircraft that stray into restricted airspace. Will all these capabilities and others amount to a safe and secure Games? And how will the world perceive the militarized “Operation Olympics?” It is arguable that the physical assets available are not a sure guarantee of an incident-free Games, that more is needed is ensure air-tight security. What’s more, the operation has opened up Britain’s defense abilities for international scrutiny linking the success of the Games’ security with Britain’s defense viability and reputation.

British Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt continues to reassure the world that it is better to “leave nothing to chance.” While his sentiment is wholly correct, fundamental flaws have not been publicly addressed, namely the institutionalized lack of coordination between the armed forces and the police, and the general unsuitability of the army to act as an additional police force.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has assured us that it will not be stepping on any toes at the Home Office and that the police will continue to take the lead in domestic security; that the armed forces will only provide assistance and expertise, resulting, in theory, to a cohesive security defense force. Will the MoD remain on its best behaviour and hold its junior role at the Games? The positive rhetoric flowing from the MoD about cooperation is only mildly convincing as it has failed, along with much of the British government, to successfully achieve cross-departmental cooperation in the past which leads one to take a pessimistic stance. The potential for breakdown and the appearance of communication cracks will have a direct impact on the security of the Games, no matter how many physical capabilities may be available.

More pressing however is the question of how well equipped the army is to take on a domestic policing role, especially given G4S’s failure to provide their quorum of security guards which has further tasked the troops. Those soldiers assigned to Operation Olympics have received five days of specialist training “in tune with the ethos of the games.”

 Yet is this sufficient to adapt a force to a domestic setting that is trained from the off-set to operate in a theatre of war? British history suggests not.

An ill-equipped British army was sent into Northern Ireland in 1969 to assist the police to quell civil disturbances which led to many heavy-handed incidents due to the ill-suited nature of their training, most notably Bloody Sunday in 1972. While many lessons have admittedly been learnt, the continued absence of a domestic unit in the UK reinforces the external-focus the army has in training and it’s unsuitability to take on a policing role.

While the pursuit of a safe and secure Games may be the driving force behind Operation Olympics, its success or failure is likely to have a wider impact on the world’s perceptions of Britain’s already stretched defence capabilities and its viability as a defence partner. Public displays of force are no new feat, as rulers since the medieval times have greeted visitors on occasion with displays of military capabilities; but this practice has largely faded in the West over the past century. By intrinsically linking the armed forces with the security of the Games, Britain is opening itself up to international scrutiny as the media covers every inch of the Games while the world watches on. The high visibility of the armed forces may mean that in the eventuality of an incident occurring, Britain’s abilities in war-time may be questioned; on the other hand, an incident-free Games may reassure partners of Britain’s defence sustainability.

The spectrum of potential “incidents” is vast and those responsible for securing the Olympics have a tough task ahead of them, especially as the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre is remembered. The Olympics will be a test of resilience and the armed forces’ adaptability, which will only be deemed a success if no hitch occurs before the last of the athletes and visitors have packed up and left the country. Until then, Britain’s defence capabilities are vulnerable to a host of threats while Britain’s defence reputation remains on the line.

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Rebecca McCartney

Rebecca is currently working at the Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Foundation for Peace in the UK. She specialises and focuses on foreign and security issues.

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