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Vincent Hogan: Sporting events forever sitting duck of terrorism

IT is maybe the most natural response imaginable to the pain now rusting up inside Angola to take sport into protective custody.

Terrorism spilling onto the back pages is like oil washing up on shingle. It triggers instant reflexes. Rage. Panic. Recrimination. Sport, we tell ourselves, should have a sacred place in this big, bad, troubled world. It should have a separate context. Diplomatic privilege.

Yet, in reality, it is the sitting duck of terrorism. How many people worldwide could name the Prime Minister of Togo? How many have heard of Emmanuel Adebayor? The answer to the second question is, of course, many multiples of the first.

So, who offers a rebel cause greater prospect of an audience?

The superficial reality of our lives is that a single shot being fired within earshot of a famous sports person captures attention quicker than the obliteration of a hundred faceless people. Hence, the separatist rebels responsible for Friday's ambush on the Togo team bus now have a global profile.

But to cancel the African Cup of Nations in response to their atrocity would be to give them a global victory.

True, quite the most farcical statement of recent days was that of the Angolan Prime-Minister “guaranteeing” the future security of teams and supporters competing in the tournament. How on earth do you hermetically seal a large, excitable crowd in any environment, let alone one prone to political unrest?

The reality is that sport must exist outside the realm of safety guarantees. It always has done.


Olympic Games – after all – come to life in an extraordinary bubble of security, yet a bomb still went off in Atlanta's Centennial Park 24 years after the attack on the Israeli team in Munich. There was such concern in the build-up to the 2004 Athens Games, the organisers essentially put the Greek capital under lock and key.

In Beijing, you got the sense of hidden cameras all but monitoring visitors' bowel movements.

When was the last Olympics that didn't tingle with political tension in its build-up, be it the boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles or the Aboriginal disconnect in Sydney?

Remember the ticker-tape World Cup of '78? How the good people of Argentina were temporarily anaesthetised to the brutality of their military generals? How national anger was suspended for the cases of the so-called ‘disappeared'? How even the notorious Montoneros guerillas suspended all activity for the duration of the tournament, as if temporarily bequeathing football a higher status than human rights?

Truth is, conflict has always rumbled around the fringes of great sports events like distant thunder around a mountain. You can put protective measures in place. But you can guarantee nothing against the arbitrariness of a lightning bolt.

Hindsight curses Angola (and, indeed, all of Africa) with caricature now. Behind the lyrical soul of the continent's football rests, you will be told, an ungovernable heart.

People warned that this could happen. Even the terrorists, we hear, all but declared their intentions.

And, no question, some of the images seeping out of modest team buses flanked by motorbikes and jeeps, bearing security personnel in sunglasses, look as if they blew up from another century.

Yet, where is safe? If suicide bombers can seek martyrdom in the London underground, on a train in Madrid or, Heaven knows, on passenger jets flying between US airports, where exactly do we take ourselves to secure the kind of guarantee Angola's Prime Minister imagines is within his gift to sell?

If a Catholic PSNI officer can still be blown up by dissident republicans in Antrim, how far have we travelled on this small island from the barbaric past in which people were slaughtered simply for being members of the GAA?

Sport didn't cease in the Six Counties through the period of ‘The Troubles' because those playing it, organising it, spectating at it, saw the alternative as no alternative at all.

Arsene Wenger is right that the African Cup of Nations must go on because, to stop it, would be “to reward the people who have caused the trouble.” Only time will reveal any questions of culpability on behalf of the organisers, security forces or, indeed, those planning the Togo travel itinerary.

But sport cannot side-step the world it exists in. It can request proper policing, monitoring and the enactment of every conceivable safeguard. Beyond that, it can merely hold its breath. Because guarantees are illusions here.

The world has never been more dangerous and sport has never had a more conspicuous place in it. If that makes us queasy about the future, well it should. Parody Africa as the ‘Dark Continent' if you choose today. Dismiss Angola as a crazy place to bring some of the world's finest footballers.

But it's not nearly as far away as you imagine.