How sport terrorism took over Europe and Pakistan in 2016

No place in the world can be declared safe from terrorism and guarantee the risk-free staging of a sports event.

Muhammad Wasim December 23, 2016
With the terrorist attack outside Besiktas football stadium in Istanbul last week, that killed 38 people and left 166 wounded, 2016 bids farewell to the world of sports on a gloomy note. A gradual rise in terror attacks on sports venues has been seen over the last two decades but this year, the phenomenon of sports terrorism has horribly haunted the whole world, especially Europe, in terms of the number of tragic incidents and casualties.

Police arrive at the site of an explosion in central Istanbul, Turkey, December 10, 2016.Photo: Reuters

Terrorism is an international challenge, yet in the last two decades, the US and Asia have suffered the most from terror militancy. Both continents’ sports activities were specifically under attack making game events, players, and fans the unfortunate victims of sports terrorism.

The attack in Pakistan on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009, the Boston Marathon explosions in 2013, the bombings at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the suicide blast at the Sri Lankan marathon race in 2008, the bomb explosions outside the Real Madrid stadium in 2002 and the ambush firing in Angola on the Togo national football team in 2010, all portray the few events where terrorists deliberately used the sports platform to attain maximum attention and notoriety. It is also a fact that the Middle East, South Asia, and North-East Africa, in general, suffer the most from extremism and militancy around the globe, but during 2016, Europe faced the brunt of terror by these groups the most. In doing so, their prime target remained the European sports fraternity.

The Boston Marathon explosions in 2013.Photo: Reuters

The wave of terrorism has certainly hit Europe at large in 2016. That’s why Europe, that contributes a sizable chunk in global sports in terms of both events and business, traded in fear this year. Sports events that were affected, cancelled, or marred in 2016 were seen largely in the context of two main terror events: the Brussels bombings in March and the lorry attack in Nice in July.

Before going through the incidents above, it is significant to mention the Paris terror attacks of 2015 that occurred outside a football stadium and killed more than 130 people and left 350 injured. Perhaps that event had tentatively insinuated what would happen in Europe over the next year and perhaps it even signified the platform of European sporting culture as a target. Also, that was the first time a major sports venue had been targeted through a terrorist attack after the notorious Munich massacre in 1972. That was the reason why safety and security in sports was always prioritised throughout 2016 in Europe.

The first major terror incident of 2016 to affect European sports occurred on March 22nd when three coordinated suicide bombings took place at the Brussels airport. These bombings killed 32 civilians and injured more than 300 people. Further investigation revealed that the perpetrators of the attack had close links with the terrorists involved in the 2015 Paris attacks.

These bombings killed 32 civilians and injured more than 300 people.Photo: Screenshot

These suicide bombings infused a wave of fear in Belgium and neighbouring countries. The Bosnia football coach called The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) to scrap all the upcoming football friendly matches in wake of the attack. The Belgium footballers also had to hold their training sessions behind closed doors for their match against Portugal. The Portugal Football Federation requested that Belgium shift the match from Brussels to Leiria city. It was Belgium’s second football match that fell six months after the Belgium versus Spain match that was also marred by the Paris attacks.

French fire brigade members aid an injured individual near the Bataclan concert hall following fatal shootings in Paris, France, November 13, 2015.Photo: Reuters

Both of these attacks threatened the staging of the Euro 2016 in France, the most coveted sports event of Europe. However, with strict security and high-tech surveillance, France managed to hold and conclude the event without any unwanted incidents. However, just days after its peaceful finale, on July 14th, a heavy cargo truck was deliberately driven into a crowd that was celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, resulting in the death of 86 people.

The attack in Nice shattered the security situation of the city again, therefore the European Cycling Championship, which was planned from September 14th to the 18th in Nice, was called off. The mayor publicly agreed to provide the required amount of police deployment for the event. As a result, the championship was moved to Plumelec.

For similar reasons, France also cancelled the Nice-Cote d’Azur triathlon race scheduled for October 1st and 2nd. The French Triathlon Federation announced their inability to find enough security for an event of 1,200 people and said it would require “too great a commitment of public order forces already mobilised otherwise”.

The conditions for staging sports events were also found unfavourable outside of Europe this year, as international sporting events developed into a prime target for terrorists. With that reality in mind, the security authorities of Rio 2016 admitted that the fear of terrorism was more serious due to the recent series of attacks. Their apprehensions were further heightened when the French jihadist, Maxime Hauchard, tweeted, “Brazil, you are our next target”.

Nevertheless, on December 10th, terror was back with the twin bomb blasts outside the newly built Vodafone Arena Stadium, popularly known as Besiktas, in Turkey. This was the second terrorist attack on Turkish football in less than 20 months.

In April 2015, several gunshots were fired at a bus carrying the Fenerbahce FC team back from their victory over Rizespor. The bus driver was injured but fortunately, the footballers were left unhurt. However, the attack on Beskistas stadium left 38 people dead. Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdogan believed that the blast “sought to cause maximum loss of life”.

Reportedly, all the above incidents of sports terrorism were carried out by religious extremists, sectarian militants, and racial separatists in order to use the platform of sports to cause maximum damage and inject fear into societies worldwide.

The lorry attack in Nice in July.Photo: Reuters

Let’s move on to Pakistan, a country that has already been suffering at the hands of sports terrorism, especially after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers. International teams and sportsmen are still reluctant to tour the country for security reasons. The country couldn’t host international game events, and for cricket and tennis, Pakistan had to rely on foreign countries to play their home matches. At a domestic level too, sports activities were prohibited in militant-controlled tribal areas who claimed that football and cricket dissuade people from the “right path”.

Terror is not solely restricted to adults, as children even take the brunt of it. For example, the Afghan child, Murtaza Ahmadi, was threatened by militants when he went viral for wearing a homemade Lionel Messi jersey. His parents were forced to move from Afghanistan to Quetta, and according to reports, they still live in constant fear.

Murtaza Ahmadi, was threatened by militants when he went viral for wearing a homemade Lionel Messi jersey.Photo: Twitter

However, as 2016 reaches its end, there does seem to be hope for a restoration of peace. The revival of sports activities in Pakistan is now being considered at various forums. Firstly, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Najam Sethi announced that the final of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) 2017 will be staged in Lahore on March 7, 2017. If Lahore is cleared to host the finale, it will definitely be a major breakthrough in the revival of cricket and sports activities in Pakistan.

Secondly, the Pakistan Tennis Federation announced that the International Tennis Federation allowed Pakistan to host the Davis Cup tie against Iran. Due to inadequate security in the country, international tennis activities were missing in Pakistan for around 15 years, and national players were forced to compete on neutral grounds or in the opponents’ states. Pakistan last hosted a major international tennis tie against Chinese Taipei back in April 2005. This time, the Pakistan Tennis Federation has assured that the safety conditions have improved.

In conclusion, there is no place in the world that can be declared safe from terrorism and guarantee the risk-free staging of a sports event. So depriving only Pakistan from hosting international sports activities is unjust. Here’s hoping that things improve for Pakistani sports fans in 2017.
Muhammad Wasim A columnist for The Express Tribune with a masters degree in mass communication from Karachi University.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

Facebook Conversations