WITH the cauldron at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro extinguished, fans and critics alike are revisiting the perennial Olympic question: To whom is this enormously oversized effort to host the games really worth it? One beneficiary that was prominently featured in Rio is the world of global security and surveillance.
Olympic delegations and high-profile guests clearly want to be assured that the host has control over security. The organizers are equally as eager to demonstrate that they have the event under control. As we see from one Olympics to the next, this is an enormous undertaking. Because of the complexity, a successful organization of the Olympics has historically required help from all institutions of state protection and public order, including the military and the police. What has changed, however, is the scope of this
cooperation and its purpose.
The Olympics have become the world’s largest peacetime laboratory in which security and surveillance operatives from countries around the world can experiment how to effectively operate together in a real-life situation and without legal constraints. These operatives have little to do with the actual organization and staging of the games. Rather, their goal is to identify and prevent potential disruptions to the event. For this purpose, a panoply of
international spy agencies, different military branches, commandos, special operations, local and federal police, reconnaissance specialists, surveillance data analysts, and scores of retired operatives and volunteers descended on Rio. Brazil, in turn, sent its own agents of order for training to a number of foreign countries, including previous Olympics hosts. These players turned Rio into a playground on which the newest surveillance technologies and policing techniques were put to use to protect the games.
No one in the global business of security and surveillance wants to miss out on this party so there are huge pressures on the host countries to open the doors. Who is invited, from which countries and in what capacities depends on the host country’s leadership and confidence in the abilities of its own security enterprise. These are important decisions because such partnerships can unwittingly expose the host country’s state security secrets and compromise its sovereignty.
Such international connections have other potential implications. Training for security purposes means a shift in policing to different strategies, equipment and weapons, which can create dependency on foreign know-how. These are also career opportunities for the newly trained experts, who now have a strong interest in maintaining the new partnerships. They support ambitions to connect their military and policing agencies and private enterprise to the global security networks. They are also motivated by a promise that their newly acquired skills will be sought by future Olympic hosts.
Local police operatives pulled together from all corners of the country are also eager to disseminate their newly acquired experience in their home offices. State-of-the-art surveillance technologies and computer programs purchased for the Olympics are too expensive to be simply retired. If they have proven effective, they will continue to be used after the event.
The Olympics provide these networks with the power to show what it means to have security. The event itself becomes the world’s most spectacular demonstration of their vision of social order. At the heart of this enterprise is the quest to control uncertainty and, in this ambition, the notion of safety is replaced by the idea of security. Safety is the domain of policy-makers and community leaders. They advocate for labor and housing legislation and family-related policies that help to provide stability to people’s lives. Providing security, in contrast, is in the hands of the surveillance and security apparatus. Their concern is how to train and equip operatives, collect intelligence and perfect surveillance technologies to be able to anticipate and act upon people’s intentions. In this way, the Olympics, much like wars, contribute to the global shift toward a security worldview and an expansion of the security and surveillance networks that support it.