Will Marathons Ever be the Same?

From marathons to bike races, the Boston bombings have sent shockwaves through the sporting world. What will the future of spectating and racing hold?

boston marathon memorial hazard material suits

Workers in hazardous material suits walk away from the scene of the bombing on Boylston Street three days after the blast that killed three and injured over 180 people.     Photo: Rebecca Hildreth/Flickr

A tipster calls in a warning. Two hours later, one bomb and then another go off on a stretch of Spanish road. Nobody’s harmed, but the 2007 Tour de France is under attack by the Basque separatist group ETA. They’ve done it before—a small explosion in the hometown of five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain in July 1996, and a thwarted plot to block the final stage of that same year’s race with explosives and Molotov cocktails.

Terrorists aren’t partial to French bike races. They’ve struck sporting events across the globe. Over the past 25 years, eight marathons have been targeted or hit. Northern Ireland (three times). Pakistan (twice). And once in Sri Lanka, Bahrain, and Cyprus, according to the Global Terrorism Database.

And now, Boston.

Some of the attacks are ideologically motivated. According to ETA, the Tour hadn’t “adequately considered the national identity of the Basques.” Eric Robert Rudolph wanted to devastate socialism at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Others—like the assassination of a Sri Lankan minister during a marathon—were more tactical. And some are religious: Islamists in Somalia have tried to tamp down interest in soccer, without success. For now, the motivations that led to three deaths and more than 170 wounded in Boston remain an enigma. But the selection of target is less of a mystery.

“Special events are at an inherent risk for a terrorist attack; they’re soft targets,” says Michael O’Neil, the president of MSA Security and the commanding officer of the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism division from 2002 to 2007. “Essentially, you’re attracting large groups of people to a confined area. Even if it’s a marathon, it’s still in a designated confined area. Bad guys know that. There’s a potential for mass casualties.”

It’s places like the VIP tent, grandstands, and finish line that make the most obvious targets—and which will likely see the largest changes in upcoming security reviews. While marathons don't always draw the condensed crowds that football games do, they pose unique difficulties for law enforcement officials, O’Neil says. Attacking an outdoor sporting event may have less reward than targeting a stadium, but the chances of success can be higher.

Take your average baseball game. From officers patrolling the streets to bag checks at the entrance and plainclothes policemen inside, there are often three layers of security any bomber would need to breach, says Dr. Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi. And there’s almost always a hardline they'd have to cross before entering the crowd: The gate where bags can be searched and spectators screened.

You can’t do that at a marathon. There’s simply too much space to cover, and it’s impossible to close off every race block and search each and every spectator without fundamentally changing the open aspect of spectating and racing, says Dr. Marciani. Penning in an event best described as “citywide party” is antithetical to the sport. Instead, you have to focus on things like upping the number of cops and cameras and screening people in the finish-line zone.

Already, officials are doing just that ahead of this Sunday’s London Marathon. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised they’d be “double, triple, quadruple checking” security while Home Secretary Theresa May said that a “number of adjustments” had been made—including upping the number of officers guarding the event.

With one suspect killed and another on the run, Londoners may have less to fear. But even before the bombing, marathon organizers planned for attacks like the Boston bombing. “We live in a post 9/11 world, not a post Patriot’s Day 2013 world,” says Scott Dickey, CEO of Competitor Group, owner and operator of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. “Not to take away from the severity of the tragedy, but to point out that for over 12 years, we as an industry and as a nation have been faced with the prospect of these types of risks.”

The next event in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series comes April 27 when over 30,000 runners will converge on Nashville for the Country Music Marathon. There are no plans to lock-down all 26.2 miles of the course, says Dickey. But there will be many behind-the-scenes adjustments and several visible changes to the event: an increased security presence (both private and from law enforcement), more random bag checks, “management of garbage cans, newspaper dispensers, and the way cones are deployed,” and undisclosed changes in how the finish line area is managed, Dickey says.

Marathons immediately come to mind post-Boston, but they’re not the only events that meet the soft target criteria, says Dr. Marciani. Parades, bike races, and all other “open” events with large crowds are possibly at risk. With the motives and details still unknown, the Boston attacks have caused a heightened sense of anxiety throughout the sporting world, says Chris Aronhalt, managing parter of Medalist Sports, the sports management team behind events like Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

Few changes will be visible at upcoming Medalist Sports events, but Aronhalt says there is a push to reevaluate security with local and state authorities and to place a focus on public awareness. One thing that won’t change: He doesn’t expect any cycling events to become closed to the public.

Marathons and bike races will always have a level of added danger because of their openness, says Dr. Marciani. But that won’t stop people from participating. Already, 15 Boston Marathon champions have signed on to attend—spectate, run, or walk— the 2014 race to show their solidarity with the Boston community.

In a moment of crisis, runners are “rallying around their love of the sport,” says Dickey. “We’re seeing an uptick in participation and registration.”

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