London Rioting Prompts Fears Over Soccer and Olympics
By JULIET MACUR and ERIC PFANNER
Published: August 9, 2011
Fearing for the safety of players and fans amid the rioting in London, soccer officials on Tuesday canceled two international matches and may postpone the opening weekend of the English Premier League, prompting questions about the city’s ability to secure high-profile events like soccer matches and next summer’s Olympics.
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Those decisions were caused by the widespread violence in the city, with rioters setting cars and buildings afire, looting stores and challenging an already stretched police force. The unrest has spread into neighborhoods near the Olympic Park in east London, the site of the Olympic Stadium and several other sites that will form the heart of the 2012 London Games.
The timing could not have been worse. This week, executives from the International Olympic Committee and officials from nearly 200 national Olympic committees arrived in London for meetings about the Summer Games. At the same time, several test events, including beach volleyball, badminton and cycling, are being held.
“There’s no doubt that this is a very bad day, a worrying day, for Olympic organizers in London,” said Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics who has studied the impact of the Olympics on the city. “They planned to protect London from conventional terrorism. But of all the things they might have thought might happen, I’d be surprised if civil insurrections was high up on their list of expected risk factors.”
Mark Adams, a spokesman for the I.O.C., said the committee was not worried about the security of next summer’s Olympics because it had confidence in the Games’ organizers. Officials from the United States Olympic Committee seemed equally unconcerned that this week’s riots would negatively affect the Games.
Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for the U.S.O.C., said the organization would work with Games organizers, the local police and the State Department to ensure the safety of the United States team.
He said the U.S.O.C. sent a team of three representatives, including Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance, to London this week and said those officials were in meetings at a hotel in central London miles away from the riots. Sandusky would not make any of them available for an interview.
The meetings with national Olympic committee officials were scheduled to focus on logistical matters like transportation, housing and health services, but the topic that could not be avoided was the riots that were shown continuously on some news channels.
As some 16,000 police officers tried to control the unrest, Games organizers tried to reassure their Olympic guests that the chaos was an aberration.
“We have a commitment to deliver a safe and secure Games and we will do so,” Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson said, according to The Associated Press. “All the evidence shows this trouble is low-level criminality driven by messages on social networks and not some new, emerging security threat.”
Still, Paula Radcliffe, a British marathoner, said on Twitter that she had concerns: “In less than one year we welcome the world to London, and right now the world doesn’t want to come.”
Yet even if fans wanted to watch top soccer games in London this week, soccer officials took that opportunity away from them — and may continue to do so.
The Football Association, the governing body of soccer in England, canceled a friendly between England and the Netherlands set for Wednesday at Wembley Stadium, saying that the security at the stadium would be weakened because the police would be dispatched to the riots. An exhibition game between Nigeria and Ghana, scheduled for Tuesday in Watford, near London, was also scratched, as were four matches Tuesday involving second-tier London clubs in the Carling Cup.
“While it’s an important game of football — for us, every game is important — the most important thing in reality here is the safety and security of all of the supporters and all of the teams,” Adrian Bevington, the managing director of Club England at the Football Association, told the BBC.
The Premier League, the top English professional soccer league, said it would announce by Thursday whether its three games set for London on Saturday would go ahead as planned. The police would have the final say, a league spokesman, Nick Noble, said.
One of those games involves Tottenham Hotspur, a team based in a neighborhood where the riots began last weekend after the police shot and killed a local resident. A ticket office at the Tottenham stadium was vandalized over the weekend.
But the Olympic test events scheduled for London this week are expected to go off as planned. The world badminton championships are being held in north London. A marathon swim will be held in Hyde Park on Saturday. A cycling race will be held Sunday.
And on Tuesday, a beach volleyball tournament began at Horse Guards Parade, nearly in earshot of the prime minister’s traditional residence at 10 Downing Street. At the last minute, the event was pushed up by three hours so it could end by nightfall.
While Prime Minister David Cameron met with his security advisers, players dived, spiked and leapt on 2,000-plus tons of sand that had been trucked in.
The top American beach volleyball players April Ross and Jen Kessy competed in the event, later saying in a telephone interview that they felt safe at the site because of the increased security. Ross said there were X-ray machines and full-body scanners at the entrance to the site, as well as a visible police presence.
“If we didn’t see the riots on the news, we wouldn’t have any idea that they were going on,” she said, adding that she and Kessy had been glued to the television since arriving Sunday.
“We keep asking everyone: ‘How far away are the riots? Are we safe?’ ” she said. “But the people at the hotel always tell us that they are miles and miles away. So we are lucky because a lot of venues are probably a lot closer.”