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Shock-and-awe of mega sports events
By Christopher McMichael
January 30th 2012
How mega sporting events bring the logic of war to host-city governance. The example of the football World Cup in South Africa highlights how security for mega-events has become a self-reinforcing feedback loop between state and corporate sector, taking the analogy between Sport and War another step closer.
The overlap between the security measures for major sporting events and contemporary war zones are a striking and increasingly globalised phenomenon. Lest we forget that the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup are ostensibly about sport and not security, London 2012 chairman Lord Coe was recently moved to offer his assurance that the British capital will not be a “siege city” come August. However the presence of warships, surface to air missiles, thousands of military personal and pre-emptive bans on protest suggests otherwise. In Brazil, the state has used the paramilitary BOPE to “pacify” favelas (shantytowns) ahead of the unparalleled consecutive hosting of the World Cup and Olympics in 2014 and 2016 respectively. As noted in a US State Department cable the efforts to “purge” these often violent areas effectively controlled by drug gangs shares an overt resemblance to the counter-insurgency strategy used by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, ever spiralling security costs have provided scope for extra-legal entrepreneurialism as witnessed by the current fraud charges facing Luiz Fernando Correa, director of security for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The security governance of mega-events is situated in a strange interzone between dream and nightmare. On the one hand the wide scale deployment of military and police would seem appropriate for an invasion or an internal state of emergency. Indeed, hosting authorities actively promote their capacity to enforce counter-measures for a number of ghoulish scenarios: stampedes in stadiums, suicide bombers disguised as fans and mass evacuations as a result of nuclear or chemical attacks. But rather than being mobilised around crises, security measures are utilized to govern sporting festivals and to ensure the images of nationalistic prowess and social cohesion. For urban authorities mega-events offer a platform to show host cities at their most modern and attractive. As a result policing measures are constrained by ‘proportionality’ as planners aim to keep the festival of sport in the headlights with security as a looming assurance (or threat) in the background.
The invocations of patriotic pride which accompany the official boosterism around mega-events entails a further overlap with warfare. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, one South African parliamentarian claimed that:

Now, however, comes the biggest spectacle and biggest opportunity to achieve a common national identity. As South Africans, we are destined to achieve great things and that togetherness must be forged in the burning excitement which is the World Cup. Never mind the costs that we will have to carry, we as South Africans can use sport to achieve what other nations have done through war.


Such sentiment served as a built-in legitimation for spiralling security costs, which in the case of South Africa, went from an initial projection of 94 million Rand in 2003 to the 1,3 Billion Rand “war chest” deployed in 2010. This largesse was certainly appreciated by the foreign security firms which won contracts for the South African Police Service (SAPS) procurement drive. As proudly noted in an in-house police journal this included surveillance helicopters linked to mobile command vehicles, water cannons, body armour and bomb disposal Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) “used extensively by US forces in Iraq.”
The government saturated the domestic media with claims that this expenditure would leave a security legacy as part of state efforts to reduce high national rates of violent crime. But notably in a country where widespread and intense public protest, often accompanied by police repression, is a continual feature of political life, most of the security systems acquired are designed with riot control in mind. Government officials claimed that South African citizens needed to put ‘internal disputes’ aside so as to present a unified front for the duration of the World Cup. This was accompanied by a de facto ban on political marches and the installation of ten kilometre cordons around stadiums to prevent strike action and other forms of “domestic extremism”.
Despite the official rhetoric of the World Cup as a “proudly South African” event, the actual structure of security governance was largely defined by FIFA, the official owner of the World Cup brand. Under the comprehensive government guarantees which were signed as a condition of bidding for, let alone winning, hosting rights, the state was obliged to manage and cross subsidise all ‘necessary’ arrangements for FIFA’s World Cup. According to the conditions agreed to in the 2003 Bid Book, the security services were responsible for funding and administering security measures at all designated venues along with providing continuous close protection services for the FIFA “family”. FIFA was granted legal indemnity from any legal cases arising as a result of the 2010 World Cup, as well as exemption from taxation. FIFA was also allowed to import and export foreign currency without restriction. Moreover, the SAPS was signed up to enforce the marketing rights of FIFA and its corporate sponsors. This lead to the establishment of special police units under the direction of FIFA officials who during the World Cup patrolled “commercial exclusion zones” around stadiums for evidence of ambush marketing. In practise, this meant that national security and commercialisation became progressively indistinguishable. For example, according to one internal planning document, restricted flying zones around host cites were necessary countermeasures against “the possibility of the utilisation of aircraft for ambush marketing and terrorist attacks.”
While the temporary security edifices which spring up around mega-events have been described as a “mobile” variant of the infamous Baghdad ‘greenzone’, FIFA’s hosting preconditions have another resonance with that occupation. During its post-war rule, the US lead Coalition Provisional Authority issued a series of sweeping orders which allowed Western companies to move profit out of the country without restriction and granted foreign contractors legal immunity in Iraqi courts. But while the plunder of Iraq’s resources was accompanied by invasion and the gun sights of F-16’s, South Africa’s government voluntarily bid to establish an overarching legislative greenzone for FIFA. The results speak for themselves: before the tournament had ended FIFA had publicly declared profits of $3bn in tax free revenue while the national government only managed to break even on its R 33bn of tournament related spending. Functioning in a legal and taxation bubble, FIFA was able to pursue its stated mission of “ensuring maximum return on investment for the sponsors.”
Publically funded security measures were a central pivot in the maintenance of this skewed accumulative geography. As the World Cup progressed the relationship, FIFA dependency on the state became increasingly parasitic. Under the initial security agreements crowd control duties within stadiums were to be privately funded by the FIFA directed Local Organising Committee. However, after the LOC refused to pay acceptable wages to Stallion Security during the preparatory 2009 Confederations Cup, the police were enrolled to perform stadium duties. Farcically, almost exactly the same scenario, and with the same company, played out during the World Cup itself where extra millions were added to the security bill when police reservists had to replace striking private security guards. The Minster of Police Nathi Mthethwa has subsequently claimed that he would pursue remuneration from the LOC. This may prove difficult as, under hosting agreements, the LOC has no permanent legal status while Mthethwa was himself on the board of directors for the expired committee.
However, the management of the SAPS skilfully succeeded in spinning the issue of stadium guarding and presented it as an example of the capacity to deliver ‘world class security’ at short notice rather than an avoidable case of LOC mismanagement. Indeed, security measures were used as a PR opportunity for an organisation which has faced much domestic criticism for perceived ineptitude and brutality to present itself as a modernised, elite force. Although the predetermined governance structure of the World Cup ring-fenced direct profits for FIFA, the preparations occurred across such a range of scales and institutions that it provided spaces for the security services to replenish budgets and arsenals. These augmentations were assisted by fighter jets and naval frigates which were purchased as a result of South Africa’s controversial 1999 arms deal. Ironically, the World Cup security measures were in part operationalised as a by-product of an unfolding political scandal which has implicated a number of South African politicians, including President Zuma and a number of major arms manufacturers.
For Daniel Bernhard and Aaron K Martin, the seeming irrationality of economic arrangements is linked into the symbolic value of mega-events for domestic political elites. Hallmark events allow host governments to roll out spectacular and sophisticated security measures which affirm their full authenticity in an elite club of nation states capable of funding such assemblages. Forgoing upwards profits may be the price of access which political elites are prepared to pay for symbolic opportunities.
As the South African example highlights, mega-event securitisation has become a self-reinforcing feedback loop between state and corporate sector. A shared discourse of ‘exceptionalism’, and no holds barred spending, provided scope for projects that may be impossible under normal conditions. For FIFA security means the establishment of a state blanket which shields its brands and protects the interests of its corporate partners. In turn, South Africa’s security forces used the opportunity to recalibrate their international standing.
Huge public expenditures and substantial restrictions on civil liberties are litigated with tactical deployment of a rhetoric of security legacies. But notably in the year since the tournament, police management seems to have downplayed the significance of the World Cup. Indeed, the SAPS had conceded that this visible policing strategy was only probably a factor in reducing some aspects of the national crime rate which amounts to a far more limited policing legacy than the one promoted ahead of the World Cup. This ambivalent conclusion contrasts sharply with the bombastic ”mission accomplished” rhetoric seen in post-tournament official statements. And like the ever-shifting justifications for the Iraq war, it appears that the concept of legacies is used throughout the world as a tool to bombard publics with pretexts for increasingly expensive and intensive security measures.
Originally published by Open Democracy
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