Olympic Safety Standards Amateur or Professional?

London Olympics SafetyThe safety of athletes and spectators at sporting events has been an important consideration for many decades, with improvements continuing to be made. Through the 1990’s there was a significant restructuring of spectator safety in sports such as football, particularly in the UK, and with the Olympics being the largest sporting event in the world, the safety implications also have had to be looked at. However, is the Olympics leading the way in safety standards, meeting the levels set by other professional sports, or still includes many amateur aspects?

Venue and Stadium Safety

A key component of modern stadium design is the safety of spectators. Significant improvements in the safety of spectators have been seen over the past two decades due to a number of large scale accidents in many parts of the world. The problems that occur with bringing many thousands of people together in close proximity within one building have been significantly worked on, with things like improved access to and from the stadiums, fire safety and often all seated stadiums a few of these.

The Olympics, however, poses a number of unique problems due to the nature and scale of the event.  Most sporting occasions occur either on a single day or at a single venue, and stadium organisers have to focus on moving people in, around and out of the stadium safely. However, the Olympics involves many days of events at many different venues, with spectators moving between venues often on the same day as well, particularly within the Olympic Village. This much increased spectator movement poses significantly increased risk to the safety of spectators.

Many venues will also conduct many rounds of competition on the same day, sometimes from the same events, sometimes from different events. This poses a much greater amount of changeover of athletes, officials and spectators, again increasing the amount of movement of people and increasing safety risks as a result

At the London Olympics, like at many others, some venues will be used for more than one sport, which in most cases have very different requirements in terms of spectator management. There is also little change over time between putting on each sporting event. Making sure the facilities at the venue are adapted sufficiently to meet the safety requirements of each sport is therefore critical to effectively manage the large numbers of spectators.

It is also the case that there are a great many more people from outside the host country attending the Olympics than at most sporting events. This causes a number of other safety problems for venue organisers. As well as the obvious problem of language discrepancies, organisers will be dealing with more people who will likely not be familiar with their environment and the procedures of the host country. This requires a much greater provision of spectator care, help and information provisions than at most sporting events.

There is also the safety of athletes to consider. Security for athletes at venues is important not only for their safety but to also ensure they are able to prepare and participate without too much interference. While it is desirable to bring spectators as close to the action and to participants as possible, athletes must be kept separate from the public, as does their support staff. Due to the vary many more athletes taking part at the Olympics than at any other sporting event, this creates a further safety dynamic as competitors have to be moved to and from stadiums, often more than once during a day, independently of the spectators.

So how does the Olympics, and particularly the London Games, effectively deal with the safety implications of managing very large numbers of people at stadiums and venues compared to other sporting events?

At previous games there has been some criticism in this area, particularly when looking at the developments in other sports in recent times. However, London seems to have addressed a number of these issues. Firstly, the stadiums and venues should all be completed well in advance of the start of the games, allowing for significantly more testing of the stadiums and their procedures to make sure any safety issues are highlighted and resolved before the 2012 games starts.

Secondly, London has brought in significant expertise that the UK has developed in this area. The Football Licensing Authority (FLA) was setup after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 to improve and regulate football stadiums throughout the UK, and has developed a worldwide reputation in this area, with the UK now boasting some of the safest football stadiums in the world. Now, legislations has recently passed through the UK parliament allowing for the authority to give advice on safety for all sports stadiums in the UK, becoming the Sports Grounds Safety Authority. Using the significant amount of expertise that the FLA has in the field of stadium safety should provide London with the safest venues at any games.

A big part of this is coordination with the police. The UK again has an excellent recent record in policing big sporting events and has a large amount of expertise in this area. London in particular is well used to policing multiple sporting events simultaneously throughout each year and indeed on most weekends, and although the Olympics presents a significantly increased challenge to the Metropolitan Police, it is well placed to meet this challenge.  With the Olympic Park and Olympic Village developed as the most closely integrated of any Games to date, this should make the policing of the Games easier in that athletes and spectators will not be as spread out, although this does have the potential to increase the concentration of people which may pose its own problems.

Safety of Sports

A safe competitive environment is a key aspect of any modern sport, and this is particularly important at elite level. Many Olympic sports pose a significant potential risk of injury to elite athletes, and if the competitive environment is not up to modern day, professional standards, then this risk increases. While it is down to the governing bodies of each sport to set out the rules and regulations for competition at the Olympics, it is the Olympic authorities that organise the event and make sure the requirements of the sports can be implemented. This requires good and effective coordination and dialogue with each of the individual sporting authorities, and is an area that has come under criticism in the past.

However, London again has significant advantages in this area. Many of the sporting events taking place at the Olympics either already take place in the UK each year or have been put on recently. This gives London a significant amount of expertise on what specific sports require so that the competitive environment is world class, and those sports where London is not used to hosting, it does understand what areas they need to know about. Indeed, the London organising authority has spent a significant amount of time in consultation with each of the sports on show at the Olympics to make sure that their requirements for a safe competitive environment for their athletes are put in place.

Visitors and Transport

Although the organisation and safety at venues and the implantation of safe competitive environments is expected to be world class, there are some areas where there are questions about the safety at the Olympics. The first of these is the issue of very large numbers of people expected to attend the London Games.

London is already one of the most visited cities in the World, and one which is relatively easy to travel to from most other countries. It is also a city that already hosts many world sporting events, as well as many other cultural occasions. There has always been a big unknown element of the safety implications of hosting the Olympics due to large numbers of people travelling to one place, and this is particularly an issue with the London Games.

With most sporting events, it is possible to judge the number of spectators that will travel to where it is taking place and cater for it. However, it is almost impossible to know exactly how many people will travel to an Olympics, and more importantly when. Many more people than have tickets will travel to London just to experience the Olympic occasion, as London promises to be one of the best yet for that purpose, particularly with the Cultural Olympics running alongside to include many other cultural events. Most professional sports look at a fairly specific number of people to attract to their event and market and cater accordingly. However, the Olympics aims to attract as many as possible, making it almost impossible to know in advance what numbers of people will be at any one place at any one time during the Olympics. This creates a potential transportation problem also, as not only are there many more people to move about but it is also difficult to know where visitors will want to move to.

To tackle this, London 2012 has used a number of strategies to manage the movements of people. Firstly, the wider UK has been used to host events. The UK is relatively small in terms of actual size and also in terms of its transport linkup, with excellent rail and road systems making it relatively easy to get to all parts of the UK. This has enabled London 2012 to use many world class sporting venues across the UK. This should help spread out the numbers of people travelling to the Games beyond just London, allowing the expertise of other towns and cities to help manage this problem.

Secondly, London has used a duel strategy to manage the movement of people between venues within London. Firstly, where possible it is using existing world class venues such as Wembley, Wimbledon, Lords Cricket Ground ,the O2 and ExCeL Arenas, as well as well known and popular tourist land marks like Horse Guard’s Parade. This makes use of the existing organisational expertise of these venues and existing transport infrastructure that serves them, which should make it easier for spectators and athletes travelling to sports held at these venues.

For new venues, London has adopted a unique approach that is designed to further solve the problem of managing and transporting vast numbers of people, a problem that poses significant concerns due to London’s already highly used transport system. London designed and has now implemented the most integrated Olympic Park and Village of any Olympic Games, bringing the athlete’s residence much closer to many more venues within the Olympic Park. One of the reasons for this was to reduce travelling distances and times of both spectators and athletes, as well as reducing the number of locations people will want to travel to. This, it was thought, would make it easier for London to effectively manage and create new transport infrastructure between venues at the Games, as most of the venues are located much closer together and on fewer sites, requiring fewer transport links. However, this strategy runs the risk of significantly increasing volumes of people in any one place. Should London have underestimate the numbers of people attending the Games, there could be a serious problem of over capacity on the transport network, which would be a significant safety concern.

In essence, the main problem with the Olympics when it comes to numbers of visitors is that it is simply unknown. While London’s strategy seems well suited to its unique requirements, this unpredictable nature will always pose a safety concern should the numbers of people be underestimated.  However, whether the Olympics, due to its size, nature and its ambitions, can be more controlling on spectator numbers in the way that other professional sports do is not certain either.


Terrorism is not a new problem at the Olympics. In 1972, 12 athletes and coaches were massacred by terrorists in an event that shook the world. However, there is no doubt that the past decade has been one of significantly higher terrorism activity and the threat of terrorism is a constant one. Major world events are always going to be a potential target, and the London 2012 Olympics will perhaps require the most coordinated counter-terrorism operation of any sporting event to date.

However, London is determined to make it as easy and as free as possible to come to London and to travel around without the levels of security checks seen at some recent Games. With London also likely to see the greatest concentration of Olympic visitors than at any other games, the counter-terrorism work is going to have to be significantly more advanced that at any other sporting event.

Although London is again well placed in this field, having learned some bitter lessons in 2005 and been at the heart of the global counter terror activities of the west for many decades, the requirements of the London Olympics from a counter-terrorism perspective are always going to be significantly unknown, particularly when compared to other sporting events. As with anything, you may have the expertise but if you are unable to plan, it is difficult to be professional, and combating terrorism for this reason may be an area where the Olympics falls short on its safety preparations, though of course we hope it does not prove to be the case.



R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder