Marathons as 'soft targets' for terrorists? Why panic isn't warranted.

Boston Marathon bombings are prompting officials of other marathons to review security plans. That's a good thing, say experts, but concerns that terrorists might single out marathons are unfounded.

By , Staff writer

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    Detritus covers the ground at one of the blast sites on Boylston Street near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, April 16, 2013, one day after bomb blasts killed three and injured over 140 people.
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A marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards – a lot of territory to secure to prevent anything like the bomb attack that killed three people and injured at least 150 more, almost all spectators, near the finish line of Monday's Boston Marathon

In the wake of Monday's tragedy, though, marathon organizers in cities around the US are taking a closer look at their security arrangements, mindful that the very nature of the course – a completely unenclosed path through diverse neighborhoods, over bridges, through wooded areas – poses challenges perhaps unrivaled by any other sporting event. Some even worry that marathons will become favorite targets for would-be attackers. 

The upshot? “It would be impossible to have security and police on every part of the race. There is no way to screen people who are watching it,” says Jeremy Jordan, an associate professor and director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University in Philadelphia. “It is very uncontrolled.”

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The number of terror incidents at marathons is relatively few – seven around the world since 1994 (not including Monday's attack in Boston), according to the University of Maryland’s Terrorism Data Base. Total fatalities were 15 – all at one event in Sri Lanka – plus 90 people injured in total at the seven races.

Terrorists are “opportunists” who look for ways to cause a lot of casualties and bring attention to their attacks, says terrorism expert Frank Cillufo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. He does not believe they are now singling out marathons as targets.

“I think we put too much emphasis on specific events,” he says. “At this point, we are at a disadvantage since we don’t know their motive and ideology” in the Boston case.

Nevertheless, marathon aficionados are disturbed over the prospect that their events might routinely become terrorist targets.

It's not just that the races are open to spectators and have easy access. It's also that terrorists may perceive that they are striking at a collective expression of achievement, endurance, mutual support, and good will, some say. Many runners, after all, compete on behalf of charities, raising millions for worthy causes. And as Mr. Jordan says, marathons are nothing short of "celebrations of the human spirit," as runners set tough goals and then reach them. 

Soon after the Boston bombing, Roger Robinson, an author and a runner, wrote on a Runners World website about how marathon crowds renew one’s faith in human nature. The spectators stand for hours “with no seating, no cover, no bathrooms, to cheer thousands of strangers,” he wrote. In fact, he noted, marathons could barely function if it were not for the volunteers who do everything from handing out water to massaging tight leg muscles.

All of these good feelings, worries Mr. Robinson, may make marathons even more of a target.

“Our problem is that this marathon world of goodwill and prelapsarian innocence has made us vulnerable,” he wrote on the website. “Our sport is such a great photo-op, and global media coverage is guaranteed. Modern murderers like those things.”

After what happened in Boston, some marathon organizers in other cities say they are reviewing their security arrangements. On Saturday, the London Marathon anticipates that 37,000 runners will take to its streets.

Nick Bitel, the race's chief executive, said Tuesday in a statement: "We want to reassure our runners, spectators, volunteers, and everyone connected with the event that we are doing everything to ensure their safety and that the Virgin London Marathon 2013 is an outstanding success."

Organizers of the Pittsburgh Marathon, to be held May 5, are confident about security, says Patrice Matamoros, the race's executive director. Nevertheless, they will beef up security at “strategic points” of the race, which will likely see 26,000 to 27,000 people at the starting line, she adds.

The city of Boston, she notes, has "years and years" of experience with putting on a marathon. That leads her to conclude that one lesson from the Boston bombings is that everything is unpredictable.

“This kind of thing can happen anywhere, at any time for any of us,” she says.

In Buffalo, N.Y., marathon director John Beishline says he, too, will reexamine security plans. “We will be making some last-minute changes to tighten up security,” he says of the city's marathon, to be held May 26.

For example, he’s reexamining what to do with all the bags left by some 7,000 runners at the start of the race. “People sometimes leave duffel bags,” he says. “We’re not sure if a bomb is there, so we’ll be studying it.”

Reexamination of security is probably a good idea, says Tim Lampe, an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Sport Leadership.

“After an incident like this security becomes heightened,” he says. “It helps to make all the other marathons safer.”

However, there are limits to what can be done, especially for something like an outdoor race, says Mr. Lampe. “There is no way in the world we can prevent any specific incident,” he says. “If someone really wants to do harm, they are able to do it.”

At a news conference on Tuesday, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said more police officers had been assigned to the finish line than ever before. But they were not enough to stop the perpetrator of the attack. “This," he said of the marathon, "is a soft target.” 

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