What we anticipated might happen in Sochi, in the end did not. Following bomb attacks in the Russian city of Volgograd a couple of months prior to the Winter Olympic Games, several governments issued grave warnings about terrorist threats.
Such was the seriousness of security concerns, that the Australian government advised its citizens not to travel to Sochi. Meanwhile, the British government warned terrorist attacks were “very likely” at the Games, while the US Homeland Security Department predicted toothpaste bombs on aeroplanes.
One can speculate on the geopolitical, strategic and security reasons why such an attack did not take place but the furore about terrorism suitably illustrates the growing importance of risk management in sport.
Further up the Black Sea coast, the fast-emerging confrontation in Crimea has created some equally pressing challenges for Ukraine’s football authorities.
Given the stand-off between pro-European west Ukranians and their pro-Russian counterparts in the east of the country, the nation’s Premier League was suddenly thrust centre-stage. With potentially explosive games ahead – such as Arsenal Kiev against Metalurh Donetsk (in essence, west versus east) – the league was temporarily suspended although it tentatively recommenced at the weekend.
It is not difficult to understand why the league took such a decision under the circumstances: large groups of football fans moving around the country, some of whom have a reputation for violent behaviour, many motivated by regional loyalties, and at a time that is era-defining for the Ukrainian nation.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is likely to have ramifications for sport that run much broader and deeper than this. One of the issues fundamental to relations between Western Europe and Russia is gas. Among those at the heart of the matter is Gazprom, the largest extractor of natural gas in the world and also shirt sponsor of the German football club FC Schalke 04.
Schalke games have already been targeted by Greenpeace activists in protest at Gazprom’s exploration for gas in the Arctic Circle. But some have suggested that the club could become the focus for further action, not just from environmental pressure groups but next time also from groups opposed to what is happening in Crimea.
Whether the management of Schalke realise it or not, they are rapidly ascending into the eye of a geopolitical storm and will need to consider very carefully what risks their association with Gazprom poses for the club, and how to manage these risks.
World cup of terror
And there is still more to come; in simple terms: Brazil 2014. As if any further proof of risk was required, one need only think of last summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup competition, which Brazil also hosted.
Whether or not local organisers and FIFA could or should have foreseen what happened in 2013 is an issue in itself, but the toxic mix of tax breaks for FIFA, domestic bus fare increases, a spluttering economy and a population with a predisposition towards social media activism created the conditions for what ultimately took place.
There is little doubt, Brazil will again be a flashpoint this year and we should anticipate more mass protests. The level of risk will be heightened by the start of Brazil’s 2014 presidential election campaign, which is scheduled to begin mid-tournament.
Also, people are unhappy with the continuing economic burden that hosting the World Cup is imposing upon Brazil and many are dissatisfied with the way in which FIFA organises and runs its tournaments. Trouble seems inevitable
At the same time, a São Paulo crime gang - the Comando da Capital (PCC) - has promised a “World Cup of terror”. With over 6,000 members in jail and 3,000 members on the street, the PCC is a potent force that constitutes a tournament threat both in terms of its drug-related activities, and also its organised and cyber-crimes.
Factor in Rio de Janeiro’s major criminal gangs – Comando Vermelho, the Terceiro Comando and the Amigos dos Amigos – and there is clearly a notable degree of risk surrounding football’s premier international event this summer.
Brazil has already implemented one part of its risk mitigation strategy in the form of “Operation Pacification” (OP). This strategy has been enacted almost to the point of industrial efficiency, targeting organised crime gangs in Rio’s favelas. For instance, in a recent intervention the Brazilian police killed six people during a pacification raid.
Notwithstanding the very serious moral issues around use of such force and the deaths associated with it, OP nevertheless highlights how seriously risk is being taken by the organisers of sport events, by teams and clubs, and by event owners and governing bodies.
Keeping up standards
While the general nature of event risk might seem obvious, the ramifications of it may be less apparent. Clearly there are security risks and as we witnessed at the FA Cup game at Hillsborough in 1989, failure to identify and manage them can have catastrophic human consequences.
But there are economic and technological risks too: for example, the PCC’s apparent threat to Brazil raises the spectre of impending cyber-crime, which could potentially lead to anything from ticket sites being hacked and brought down, through to online fan forums being infected with damaging viruses.
There are also geo-political and image risks too; one recent commentary identified sporting mega-events as being “coming-out parties” for emerging nations. Part of the logic for such nations to host the likes of the World Cup is for them to demonstrate their competence in delivering major projects in a timely and appropriate fashion.
Failure to do this can result in reputational damage, a nation’s power being undermined and the creation of an image that highlights a country as being ill-equipped to be a global player (in sport at least).
A poor image can also impact upon the benefits of hosting a sporting event; many studies show that tourism often accounts for the largest proportion of expenditure in host cities and nations. When there is talk of aeroplane toothpaste bombers and drugs cartels wandering the streets, this inevitable threatens travellers and such expenditures.
For those wanting to understand the nature of risk, there is an international standard that defines it: ISO 3100. It is important to note that the standard is set in the context of good management practice and safeguarding the well-being of stakeholders. In sport, this means people, groups and organisations such as fans, the media and commercial partners.
But good management practice is significantly different to protecting a population’s civil liberties, allowing people the democratic right to protest and affording groups their online privacy. As such, this summer’s events in Brazil are likely to provide us with some interesting insights into the effective, and indeed appropriate, management of risk.