Securing an Olympic Legacy

Pyeongchang, a rural county in one of the poorest regions in South Korea, recently hosted 60,000 security forces, alongside an influx of security infrastructure that included such state-of-the-art military technology as interceptor drones, aircraft equipped with facial recognition scanners, and sensor systems that detect various chemical warfare agents and explosive threats. Meanwhile, South Korean police and military personnel have held numerous anti-terror drills over the past several months.

Image Courtesy of Republic of Korea, © 2010 • Pyeongchang Hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics.


South Korea is not at war, mobilizing for combat, or otherwise engaged in open hostilities. So why all the security? The show of force is part of a two-year effort to implement wide-ranging security measures at the 2018 Winter Olympic games held in Pyeongchang in February. Such a large investment in counter-terror and other security measures is hardly unique to this year’s games. London 2012’s security bill was upwards of £1 billion, while Greece devoted $1 billion to security for the 2004 summer games in Athens.

Indeed, the idea of a security legacy has become a key selling point in cities’ bids to host the games. London’s proposal for the 2012 Summer Olympics was successful, in part, due to the long-term regeneration benefits the games would bring to London’s economically depressed East End. More broadly, this idea of legacy–that the games should generate long-term economic and social benefits for the host cities–has become a strategic imperative of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and of the host countries themselves. As it pertains to security, specifically, that legacy is quite concrete, as physical security measures typically stay in place once the games are over.

This emphasis on building a legacy that extends beyond the event gives organizers a “social license” to operate and win support for their security-minded projects, which necessarily means that spending is diverted from investing in public goods like education and health. The social net loss is compounded by the fact that many of the stadiums and other structures built for the games are too expensive to maintain and have no other sustainable or economically-viable uses in future.

Perhaps more insidiously, extensive CCTV networks and physical security measures like fences and barriers that were originally installed with the purpose of protecting Olympic athletes and spectators are later appropriated for police and military use. In Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics (2016) author Jules Boykoff argues that the Olympics have long given host governments an opportunity to purchase new policing technologies that are maintained for use well after the games have ended. Indeed, in a Los Angeles Times piece published in the lead up to the Opening Ceremony, Boykoff reports that “South Korean officials are taking full advantage of the opportunity to add to their domestic arsenal, installing extra CCTV cameras and facial recognition systems while ramping up their supply of tactical drones.”

This, combined with South Korea’s 60,000-strong security force, makes the Pyeongchang games one of the most militarized in the history of the Olympics. And that’s just the host country’s contribution. South Korean authorities have been working closely with security experts from other nations in the months leading up to the games. The U.S. alone sent 200 security personnel, supplemented by cutting-edge tech like surveillance blimps and smart security cameras programmed to detect unusual behavior. Whatever else may be said of the security culture surrounding the Olympics, the games certainly do encourage intelligence-sharing on unprecedented levels.

Image Courtesy of flickr, © 2012 • Soldier mans a high velocity missile system during exercise olympic guardian for London.

The message here is two-fold. The presence of robust security is meant to deter would-be terrorists and extremists on one hand, while simultaneously signaling that the event is secure and safe for participants and spectators. While police presence and other highly visible security measures may reassure foreign visitors of their safety, they do little to protect the locals on the ground. Abuses committed by police against residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, both leading up to and since the 2016 Summer Olympics, is but the most prominent example of a policy designed “for the English to see.” Such security and surveillance apparatus open the door for assaults on civil liberties and human rights violations, particularly of those groups that are impoverished and marginalized.

At this point, it is too soon to say just what kind of legacy the 2018 Winter Olympics will leave for Pyeongchang. It is unlikely, however, that its largely poor, rural population will benefit from the heightened security infrastructure in any real way. Certainly the state’s acquisition of additional CCTV cameras and facial recognition systems will fail to touch those people in a meaningful way, unless it’s to track their movement and monitor their communications. Likewise, it is hard to see how the displacement of an entire village or the razing of 58,000 trees to make room for a luxury resort and an Alpine skiing course advances human security, much less promotes a positive legacy.

To truly build a legacy of prosperity and sustainability, future Olympic committees must consider security outside of a vacuum. They must contemplate for whom they are building security, as it is clearly not for the disenfranchised–those who are consequently the least secure and most clearly stand to benefit from the potential of a socially responsible Olympic legacy.

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