Planning for the worst: risk, uncertainty and the Olympic Games




Security for the Olympic Games has become undeniably visible in recent years. A certain degree of this visibility became unavoidable after the 1972 Munich Olympics when military personnel and hardware became standard elements of Olympic security. Yet, this visibility is qualitatively different today in that it is often deliberately fashioned for public consumption. This article argues that this expressive dimension of security at the Games provides a window into wider issues of how authorities ‘show’ that they can deliver on the promise of maximum security under conditions of radical uncertainty. The latter sections of this article examine three ways in which this promise is extended: the discursive work of managers of unease, the staging of highly stylized demonstration projects, and the fabrication of fantasy documents. We focus on how officials emphasize that they have contemplated and planned for all possible security threats, especially catastrophic threats and worst-case scenarios. Actually planning for these events is epistemologically and practically impossible, but saying and showing that authorities are ‘planning for the worst’ are discursive ways of transforming uncertainty into apparently manageable risks that are independent of the functional activities they describe. As such, our analysis provides insights into the much broader issue of how authorities sustain the appearance of maximum security in order to maintain rhetorical control over what are deemed to be highly uncertain and insecure situations. Such performances may paradoxically amplify uncertainty, thus recreating the conditions that foster the ongoing securitization of everyday life.