Martin Snedden: Anti-terror plans essential

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When news came through last week about the Al Qaeda threats to the various sporting events in India, including the Delhi Commonwealth Games, my mind immediately went back to April 21, 1987.

It was just after 4.30pm. I was with the New Zealand cricket team in Sri Lanka. Minutes before we had finished another hot and sticky day of test cricket and were getting on board the team bus to go back to our hotel when we heard a massive explosion, a little bit like a very heavy crack of thunder.

Apart from being a bit startled, none of us thought anything more of it. A little while later that night we were told that a bomb had gone off at a nearby bus station. More than 100 people had been killed and over 200 injured.

This was probably the moment that the long-simmering civil war in Sri Lanka escalated into something much more dangerous. That night, a state of civil emergency was declared and Colombo was shut down under curfew.

The tour was aborted two days later and we returned home, a bit shaken but with no comprehension that this type of event was about to plague cricket on many subsequent occasions.

Whilst there had been that terrible Munich Olympics terrorism attack in 1972, it's fair to say that the 1987 Colombo blast was the start of sport and terrorism bumping up against each other in a regular way.

Cricket, in particular, has been littered with terrorism incidents since then. Kiwi cricket teams were close to serious bombings in Colombo again in 1992 and Karachi in 2002.

In my time as CEO of NZ Cricket, I had to deal with serious terrorism incidents or threats at least five or six times.

But it was the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March last year and the Togo football team in Angola only seven weeks ago that finally served to signal that sport can no longer assume that it will not be directly targeted by terrorists.

Up until then some many had had held the view that, apart from Munich 1972, teams who had experienced near misses simply had the bad luck to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. That argument no longer holds water. Clearly sport is now a prime terrorism target.

So how does sport deal with this? It's a terrible situation for any sports administrators to find themselves in. There is no easy answer but I have some thoughts, based on my own experiences, about how to navigate through this type of situation.

First, each circumstance needs to be examined and judged on its own merits. It is human nature for people to react to danger or the threat of danger by reactively deciding that to "do nothing" is the answer - ie, if there is a threat, don't go near it.

If everyone took that approach, no one would go anywhere and international sporting schedules would quickly descend into chaos. Hard as it might be at the time, it is necessary to give every individual situation its own considered analysis.

Second, plan well, follow good process and use the expertise that is now available. None of my experiences in recent years could be regarded as unforeseeable or completely unexpected.

What happened in Lahore and Angola, and last week's Al Qaeda threats were also all foreseeable situations.

Terrorism is now a fact of international sporting life and every team administrator or major event host needs to ensure that excellent quality security strategies, plans and processes are put in place as a matter of normal course.

This sometimes takes weeks or months of advance planning.

When the bomb went off outside the Kiwi cricket team hotel in Karachi in 2002, none of the team suffered injuries in part because, when planning this trip, NZ Cricket's security advisor had insisted that concrete safety barriers be installed outside the team hotel to reduce significantly the potential risk of any suicide bomber getting a car close enough to the hotel to inflict damage on those in the hotel.

Good security planning means that, in certain circumstances, a potential risk is able to be mitigated sufficiently to warrant a team or an event proceeding as originally scheduled, even though that risk is still real.

Third, establish as quickly as possible what the decision-making time frame is, then use all of the available time. If there is little time, don't procrastinate.

In Karachi, we made a decision to cancel the tour two hours after the bomb exploded. The decision was obvious and easy but the players, who were suffering from shock, needed to know very quickly that they would be coming home.

In contrast, during Cricket World Cup 2003, when we were assessing whether or not to allow the NZ team to play in Kenya in the face of threat assessments which warned westerners against going there, we took the available full six weeks to work through all available information before making a decision not to allow the players to travel.

Finally, don't abdicate decision-making responsibility to the players. The sports administrator must take primary responsibility.

If, after careful consideration, the decision is to proceed then there is no problem, at that stage, with giving players an individual choice.

In 2003, NZ Cricket wouldn't allow our team to go to Kenya even though about half were prepared to take the risk. In 2004, we decided the team would go back to Pakistan although individuals could make up their own minds about whether or not to join the team.

I don't envy the administrators dealing with the current circumstances but cool heads will eventually find workable solutions.

* Martin Snedden is now CEO of Rugby New Zealand 2011.

- Herald on Sunday

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