For London, What Price Olympic Security?

After the bombings, London's estimate for the 2012 games seems way too low

Londoners had less than 24 hours to savor the news that their city had beaten out four others for the privilege of hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics. Then, on July 7, terrorists struck.

The attacks, which claimed 56 lives, are forcing the Games' organizers to take a fresh look at their plans for securing the city of 7.4 million. Although opening ceremonies are still seven years away, security experts already are muttering that at $400 million, estimates of security costs for the London Games are way too low.

The Munich massacre of 1972; the Atlanta bombing of 1996. No one wants the London Games to go down as another grim marker in Olympics history. Under the plan presented by the organizers of the 2012 games, security is a tiny slice of a massive $18.3 billion budget that encompasses everything from staffing for the games, to the building of new sports arenas, to the makeover of London's gritty East End. But in the wake of the bombings, security costs are likely to soar well beyond $800 million, experts say. "All the security costs haven't been properly estimated," says Mark Bostock, a director at London consultancy Arup, which undertook a cost-benefit analysis of staging the Olympics.

That was certainly Athens' experience. When the Greeks put in their bid for the 2004 Summer Games long before September 11, officials thought they would have to shell out $122 million for security. But the figure wound up topping $1.8 billion, and included, among other things, a command-and-control system and safe houses in case of a major attack, according to Vance, an Oakton (Va.) security outfit that worked on the Athens Olympics. By contrast, Atlanta's security tab was a paltry $150 million.

Olympic officials have already acknowledged they'll have to recrunch their numbers for 2012. Still, most agree that London, which has long lived under the specter of terrorist threats from the Irish Republican Army, has a head start where security is concerned. The city, for instance, already boasts a surveillance network of 500,000 closed-circuit cameras -- which has helped investigators reconstruct the July 7 attacks.


London last played host to the Games in 1948. More recently, Britain, considered an expert on counter-terrorism, has advised Sydney, Athens, and Beijing on Olympic security. While the specifics are not yet known, security arrangements for the 2012 Games will include assessments of the risks of a disruption to the event, be it terrorism, a natural disaster, or an unruly fan. Besides outfitting local police with guns, in place of the nightsticks many now carry, and deploying scanners, cameras, and metal detectors at sports arenas, London may follow Athens' example and send up a blimp outfitted with hundreds of cameras to survey the city.

One possible advantage is that London's Olympic Village will be located inside the Olympic Park, making it easier to secure. Still, experts stress that surveillance measures are no substitute for spotting a plot in advance and foiling it. "It's all about planning and intelligence," says Robert N. Sikellis, managing director at Vance's New York office. "If you get to the point where someone is walking to a venue with something strapped to him or her, it's too late."

Host cities like Athens and Montreal (1976) were saddled by huge debts in the aftermath of the Games. But London's organizers are confident that they can line up the necessary financing. "We've done everything we can to ensure that the budget is realistic," says Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell. The money will come from the International Olympic Committee, the British government, corporate sponsorships, revenues from the sales of tickets and TV rights, and other sources such as a new lottery game dubbed "Go for Gold". If there's any shortfall, British taxpayers will pick up the tab. Londoners better hope those lottery tickets start selling fast.

By Laura Cohn in London

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