A Legacy of Security in Olympic London

2012 Games will bring with it an even broader surveillance infrastructure

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Kieran Doherty / Reuters

London’s 2012 Summer Olympics are still more than eight months away, but the legacy they’ll leave behind is already being put in place. Beyond the stadiums and park grounds, a more subtle afterbirth will stick around once the games are over. It’s the security infrastructure – both physical and economic – that is already being established in this long-troubled part of town that will persist and affect the area long after the 17-day event is over.

Dr. Pete Fussey is a criminologist at the University of Essex who studies security issues surrounding the Olympic Games. He says the security surrounding the games will be one of the most significant impacts of the event, and that in both good and bad ways it will shape the legacy of London’s Olympics.

Legacy is becoming a key selling point for these mega-events. By touting the long-term changes hosting the Olympics will bring, cities are able to generate the political support to bid for the games, and to convince the games’ stewards, the International Olympic Committee, that its event will have a clean stage and complimentary spotlight. Indeed, it’s widely believed that London’s bid was successful because of its emphasis on the long-term regeneration prospects it offers the site of the game, the city’s economically depressed East End.

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“This area of London has always suffered,” says Fussey, who’s lived in the East End for more than a decade.

The Olympics will dramatically reshape this part of town, with the creation of the Olympic Park and its various sporting venues, as well as the Olympic Village athlete housing area that will be converted to about 2,800 apartments after the event. Fussey says this is a physical footprint that will require a significant amount of security during the event, and that some of that security infrastructure will remain afterward, especially around the Olympic Village.

“We’re talking about the Olympics being housed in one of the most deprived areas of the country,” Fussey says. “You’ll necessarily have a higher level of physical security in these kinds of places. You’ll have conceptual as well as a physical legacy.”

There are an estimated 4 million closed circuit surveillance cameras installed throughout England, with roughly a quarter of that amount concentrated in London. This approach to law enforcement will continue with the Olympics, and it’s likely that much of that camera infrastructure will remain in place after the event is over, keeping an eye on the new park spaces and apartment complexes the Olympics are bringing to the East End. And though much of the original bid focused its legacy planning on the East End’s lower income population, new developments such as a shopping mall are catering to more affluent groups, and new housing in the area is likely to change the overall economic demographics of the area.

“It’s highly doubtful that these will be communities where people mix together. It’s probably more likely that they’ll be segregated, that you’ll have rich, heavily securitized compounds and poorer neighborhoods that don’t have the same kind of security,” Fussey says. “It means other areas become more vulnerable to crime.”

Fussey says there is currently a huge electrified fence encircling the Olympic Park, and it’s unclear whether that will remain after the games. Airborne drones are also expected to be used for security purposes during the event. He says this sort of militarization of the Olympics has increased since the kidnapping and killing of members of the Israeli team at the Munich games in 1972. The attacks of September 11, 2001 greatly exacerbated that trend.

Despite concerns about this level of intense security, Fussey says increased awareness of potential threats has fostered better coordination between local and federal law enforcement and safety agencies.

“You get these formalized networks between security agencies, which is a good thing,” Fussey says. “Generally you get more integrated work that remains after the Olympics.”

But it also diverts some resources. Fussey notes that plans for London’s Olympics call for about 7,000 private security guards. Under normal circumstances it would be difficult to find that many security guards in England, so new programs have been created to train teens in basic security techniques. It’s helping to fill the short-term need, but creating a potential long-term economic problem.

“What’s happened is there’s been a diversion of people from education into these security roles,” says Fussey. “After the games, if they remain employed, you’ll have a lot of private security guards. If they don’t, you’re going to have a lot of unemployed people.”

Either option seems undesirable. It’s almost certain that a good portion of the security measures put in place will remain after the games, both in terms of physical camera infrastructure and a new force of private security guards. The future of the Olympic site will likely be an unclear mix of public and private spaces in an area that the event bid intended to serve as a public benefit. And though Fussey contends that the Olympics offer potential benefits for the East End and for London as a whole, he cautions that expecting dramatic improvements is unrealistic.

“Everyone holds it up to be this sort of miracle of a legacy,” Fussey says, “but there are huge problems with what’s left behind and passed on.”

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.