Analysis: A short history of attacks on sport

Why targeting a sporting event often feels like a direct attack at the heart of a nation.

    The 1972 Munich Olympics, when members of the Palestinian Black September Organisation took a group of Israeli athletes and coaches hostage [GALLO/GETTY]
    The 1972 Munich Olympics, when members of the Palestinian Black September Organisation took a group of Israeli athletes and coaches hostage [GALLO/GETTY]

    A capacity crowd of 80,000 had packed into the Stade de France to watch the national side take on the world champions Germany in an eagerly anticipated friendly. In the crowd were families waving flags and children with faces painted in the blue, white and red of the tricolour.

    Twenty minutes into the game the mood of revelry began to evaporate. The sound of an explosion echoed around the stadium. It was a moment captured on live television, clearly heard as Patrice Evra passed infield to Laurent Koscielny, and captured in video clips shared millions of times on social media. Ten minutes later, there was another, and a third, 23 minutes after that.

    The people in the stadium wouldn't have known it at the time, but three people had been killed by suicide bombers just outside and coordinated attacks, that would leave at least 129 people dead, were being carried out across the city.

    The chance of the Olympics… was like painting the name of Palestine on a mountain that could be seen from all four corners of the earth.

    A Black September memo

    Some of the players on the pitch would be personally affected. The cousin of French midfielder Lassana Diarra, Asta Diakite, was killed in a shooting in the city, and French striker Antoine Griezmann's sister, Maude, had been at the Bataclan concert hall, where 87 people were killed.

    Spectators were kept on the pitch at the end of the game, while the two teams were forced to stay overnight at the stadium.

    A sporting event had become a platform for violence - and it wasn't the first time. 

    Targeting sport has a long and bloody history.

    The incident that has, perhaps, most clearly seared itself into our collective memory is the 1972 Munich Olympics, when members of the Palestinian Black September Organisation took a group of Israeli athletes and coaches hostage.

    A rescue attempt by German police was botched. Eleven members of the Israeli Olympic squad, a policeman and five Black September members were eventually killed.

    The operation was viewed as a success by the Black September group. The day-long standoff had been televised around the world, and they marvelled at the exposure they had generated.

    A memo they released later read: "… a bomb in the White House … could not have echoed through the conscience of every man in the world like the operation at Munich.

    "The chance of the Olympics … was like painting the name of Palestine on a mountain that could be seen from all four corners of the earth."

    A member of Black September during the stand-off at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany [AP]

    Indeed, the image of one of the Black September members, wearing a ski mask and standing on the balcony of an Olympic village apartment on September 5, 1972, is still one of the most infamous in sporting history.

    Before the Games, Black September planner Faud al-Shameli sent out a memo, which read: "We have to kill their [Israel's] most important and famous people.

    "Since we cannot come close to their statesmen, we have to kill their artists and sportsmen."

    In 1972, there were initially 1,740 police officers at the Games. That was later increased to 2,130. At the 2012 Games in London, there were 23,700 police and security officers and an overall security budget of $1.6bn.

    It is the symbolism of sport that explains, in part, why it has long been a target.

    Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympic Games to promote Nazi propaganda and the supposed superiority of the Aryan race.

    Ironically, the organisers of the 1972 Games - the first to be held in Germany since 1936 - had kept security low key because they wanted to distance themselves from the "Nazi Games".

    'Football is war'

    Sport has always been seen as a manifestation of national identity.

    It is sometimes an outlet for our most primitive, tribal instincts, or, as the former Holland coach, Rinus Michels, put it: "Football is war."

    That might explain why, when Holland beat Germany in the 1988 European Championships, more people were out on the streets of Holland celebrating than there were when peace was declared at the end of the World War II in May 1945.

    Or why there were riots in Czechoslovakia after they beat their occupiers, the Soviet Union, in the 1969 world ice hockey final.

    Or why a drone with a banner bearing the insignia of "Greater Albania" was flown above a stadium in Belgrade when the country took on neighbouring Serbia in a Euro 2016 qualifier last month, leading to a riot involving players, coaches and fans and the abandonment of the match.

    Attacking a sports team or the venue in which they are playing is seen as an attack at the heart of the enemy.

    The Basque separatist group ETA has targeted Spanish team Real Madrid on several occasions because they are seen as the team of the Spanish establishment.

    In 2002, ETA detonated a car bomb before Real Madrid's Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, and in 2004, a bomb threat forced the abandonment of Real's match against Real Sociedad.

    'Maximum losses'  

    Hosting a major sporting event can bestow great prestige upon a city or country - and attacking one can shatter that.

    When Eric Robert Rudolph detonated a bomb at a concert during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, killing two people, his stated objective was to "create instability in Atlanta, potentially shutting the Games down, confounding anger and embarrassment for the Washington government".

    Of course, there are also practical reasons for targeting sporting events.

    In 2012, one of ISIL's spiritual leaders, Abu Musab al-Suri, sent guidance to his followers, proposing the "targeting of human crowds in order to inflict maximum human losses".

    He specified sport as a prime target, stating: "[There are] numerous such targets, such as crowded sports arenas."

    The Wall Street Journal reported that one of the Paris attackers had a ticket for the match at the Stade de France and tried to gain entry to the stadium before kick-off. When a security guard noticed his suicide belt, the attacker fled before detonating it.

    In 2013, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev targeted the Boston marathon, setting off pressure cooker bombs and explosive devices, which caused the deaths of three spectators and injured 264 people.

    The event was televised live.

    'Still haunted' 

    In 2009, cricketers were  targeted for the first time in the most deadly attack on sport since Munich.

    Twelve gunmen attacked the Sri Lanka team bus as it made its way to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore for the third day of the second Test against Pakistan. Six policemen, two bystanders and the driver of the minivan were killed. Seven members of the Sri Lanka team and the reserve umpire were injured.

    Sri Lankan batsman Kumar Sangakarra later recalled how a bullet had been embedded in the exact spot on his seat where his head had rested a second earlier.

    The identities and motives of those who carried out that attack are still unknown, but the implications have been clear.

    The Sri Lanka team immediately returned home and the Pakistan tour was cancelled. While the events will no doubt live with the players for the rest of their lives they were able to go on to great success.

    Pakistan, on the other hand, did not host an international cricket match for over six years - the national team was forced to play in exile in the United Arab Emirates until earlier this year.

    Teams in transit can be vulnerable, especially in developing countries that lack the budgets and infrastructure of the Western world.

    The Togo football team bus was attacked by an Angolan separatist group at the African Cup of Nations in 2010, killing three people.

    The tournament went ahead but Togo pulled out, with their highest-profile player, the striker Emmanuel Adebayor, retiring from international football, declaring: "I am still haunted by the events of that terrible afternoon."

    Sport has tended to bounce back from such attacks, however.

    The year after the Boston bombing, more than a million spectators lined the route for the marathon - twice the usual number - and there were the second-highest number of runners in the race's history.

    It was a great show of defiance.

    But something had changed. More than 3,500 police manned the route and rigorous bag checks were conducted.

    A survey of people attending the Athens Olympics found that 24 percent did not feel safe.

    And that, perhaps, is the greatest legacy of these attacks on sport.

    The 80,000 spectators who went to the Stade de France on Friday evening, many of them children with painted faces, will never feel the same about watching a football match again.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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