Keeping Score

After Boston Marathon Bombings, Sports Safety Takes the Spotlight — But the Games Must Go On

Expect some sports security changes after the Boston Marathon bombing. But they won't be radical. The games will go on.

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Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Members of the San Antonio Spurs observe a moment of silence for victims of the Boston Marathon explosions before an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., April 15, 2013.

The Boston marathon bombings sent shock waves not just through the running world, but through the the sports world at large. Stories of athletes’ bravery emerged rapidly after the explosions — many marathon runners sprinted toward the scene to help with the rescue effort, and others rushed to give blood. Former New England Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi carried an injured woman to safety. Leagues responded with sensitivity — the NBA, for example, canceled tonight’s Boston Celtics home game against the Indiana Pacers. The game has no impact on the playoff race, and with scars (and fears) so fresh, a sporting event in Boston seems inappropriate.

The Chicago Tribune‘s Sports section swiftly put aside its rivalry with Boston in a very classy design move Tuesday morning, dedicating the front page of the section to Boston sports teams out of solidarity. Ben Revere, centerfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, taped a “Pray For Boston” message on his glove. He then went and made the catch of the season. Such gestures are inspiring. But they fail to address the somber question that has emerged in the fallout from the tragedy: how can sports fans and spectators feel safe at these big events going forward?

Because a bombing at a marathon — or any other event — was always the fear. Sports events seem like such an easy target. ┬áThe attention of the large crowds is focused on the field, on the court, on the race — not on what might be in a trash can next to them. The 1996 Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Olympics put American sports on notice, and 9/11, of course, changed everything about security, everywhere. But for sports, the Boston marathon bombing strikes a particular nerve, coming at the finish line of one of the great athletic tests, both for world-class athletes, and for weekend warriors striving for an astounding personal achievement, or running 26 miles for┬ácharity.

(MORE: Treating the Marathon Casualties: Inside One Boston Emergency Room)

So will everything change for sports, again? For the perpetrators of this tragedy, the Boston marathon may have been an ideal event, because 26-mile road races through public streets are harder to secure than, say, the Super Bowl, where everyone comes to one defined location, and first pass through detectors as if headed to the airport gate. David Holley, a Boston-based sports security expert for Kroll Advisory Solutions, a risk consulting firm, expects a more intense pubic safety presence at next year’s Boston marathon. But he doesn’t believe that even the finish line would be cordoned off. “I can’t image that’s going to happen,” says Holley. “It would really change the tenor of the event. The participatory nature of the Boston Marathon makes is special. The people cheering at the finish get so into it, they feel like they’re one of the runners. It’s a hard one to address.” Especially since, Holley says, restricting the finish area would be so logistically difficult, with so many hotels and shops and side streets clustered near the finish area.

Hugh Robertson, the U.K. sports minister, says that this Sunday’s London marathon, which has some 37,500 runners, will go on as planned. Around 500,000 spectators are expected to line the streets to watch the race which starts in Blackheath, in southeast London, and ends in the Mall, in the center of the city. The Guardian reports:

The home secretary, Theresa May, has been briefed fully about the Boston explosions and held a meeting with the MI5 director-general, Jonathan Evans, and the Met’s assistant commissioner for specialist operations, Cressida Dick.

The threat level to the UK from international terrorism, set by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, remains at substantial.

Police and London Marathon officials are expected to have a series of discussions about security following the explosions in Boston.

Scotland Yard is waiting for details to emerge from US investigators, such as who is thought to be behind the blasts, as well as information about the bombs’ construction and the types of explosives used, which will help give clues about whether the perpetrator or perpetrators were inspired by al-Qaida ideology or other forms of extremism.

Chief Superintendent Julia Pendry, in charge of policing the London Marathon, said: “A security plan is in place. We will be reviewing our security arrangements in partnership with London Marathon.”

At many U.S. sporting venues, security is already tight. Holley recalls attending the NCAA Lacrosse Final Four the last two years, and being impressed with how thoroughly venue workers checked all bags. At the men’s basketball Final Four in Atlanta in early April, access to Centennial Park, near the Georgia Dome, required a bag and metal detector search. But even there, I remember noticing that not every pocket of my bag was searched, and my mind turned to fearful thoughts: someone could sneak something in, couldn’t they? Most American sporting events don’t have Olympic-level security; at the Olympics, bags go through scanners.

(PHOTOS: Carnage at the Boston Marathon)

“We operate in a free society,” says Holley. “And that sometimes comes at a cost.” Holley’s advice to anyone now a bit more worried about attending a mass sporting event: “Remain vigilant. Be aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes open to more than just the events.” Holley expects venues to use more crowd surveillance technology, and maybe more bomb-sniffing dogs. “I have to imagine there will be more engagement between security and fans,” says Holley. “To extent people are acting oddly, or are drinking too much, or are a bit too excited, security will be asking more questions.”

But the games will go on. And here’s a safe bet: all those people at the marathon finish yesterday — those impacted by the bombs, the first responders, the spectators/runners-turned-heroes — wouldn’t have it any other way.

(MORE: Behind The Hunt For The Boston Marathon Bomber)