Skip to main content
paris attacks

The function of sports in the age of modern terror is as a sort of reset button.

Some days after an atrocity, we come together in arenas to signal that we haven't been cowed. The players and coaches – our cultural idols – speak on our behalves. We sing the songs, stand in silent commemoration and embrace our rivals in a show of common purpose. It's a powerful and comforting reminder that we're still here.

In the years since 9/11, every major sport has served its time in that symbolic brushing away of fear. They tried it again on Tuesday. It didn't work quite so well this time.

The centrepiece of the attacks on Paris was a failed bomb incursion into the Stade de France. Only four days later, it appears the terrorists contemplated – and perhaps came close to executing – the same sort of plot at Tuesday's Germany-Netherlands friendly in Hanover. Ninety minutes before kickoff, fans already inside the stadium were told via a public announcement to leave "quickly." Once outside, they found trains cancelled. They were urged to move away from the stadium on foot.

Alerts began setting off across the city – subways were halted; the main train station was sealed; a concert in another stadium was also cancelled. Initial reports – nearly always unreliable – suggested there was one bomb inside the arena and another outside.

Two-and-a-half hours later, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere gave a news conference in which he confirmed a "concrete threat" against the stadium. The tipoff was provided by a foreign intelligence service. De Maiziere refused to give any details of the danger for fear of "unsettling" people.

You understand his sentiment, but one presumes people were already unsettled. Many will remain unsettled for the foreseeable future. Hanover signals a shift in our collective coping patterns. This time, the threat of violence would not be wished away by a show of sporting togetherness.

"It's a sad day for Germany," de Maiziere said. "This game was supposed to be a show of unity against terrorism."

Across the water, on what was supposed to be the evening's main stage, France played England at Wembley Stadium in London.

The teams mingled, linking arms. The crowd sang Le Marseillaise, as they had been urged to do. There was a pristine moment of silence. Here was the uplifting defiance Europe had been hoping to exhibit.

As it was going on, events in Hanover were unfolding, rendering the whole show somehow quaint. It seemed like a naive reminder of a different time, only a few days ago.

On Sunday morning, Jacques Lambert, head organizer of Euro 2016, was still speaking in the familiar patterns of public officials following any violent tragedy.

"To ask questions about the cancellation of Euro 2016 is to play into the hands of the terrorists," Lambert said.

It's a statement both true and facile. It's all well and good to soldier on as if nothing is happening as long you have a reasonable assurance that nothing is actually going to happen. If the French government has any substantive doubts about its ability to protect hundreds of thousands of soccer fans for a month next June and July, it would be dangerously irresponsible not to ask the questions Lambert waves away.

Depending on how close the extremists got to pulling it off in Hanover, expect a shift in tone in the compulsory "giving in to terrorism" rhetoric over the coming weeks. It may begin to seem more sensible than cowardly, at least as it applies to offering up massive, publicly scheduled targets.

This is not to suggest the tournament should be cancelled. That wouldn't be showing a white flag. It'd be waving a red one – "Come and get us, because we'll fold up the tent and call off the show any time you can manage to sneak a few suicidal thugs past the border." What it is suggesting is that we have to begin radically rethinking the way such tournaments are staged. You can no longer do Fan Zones. You can't erect screens and invite people to watch in huge bunches. You can't let visitors sleep in train stations. You have to give up on the shiny, happy era of Big Tournament policing. Next summer during Euro, Paris will be an armed camp.

From now on, these events are no longer primarily about sports, with a strong supplementary onus on safety. They're about intelligence gathering, risk prevention and military readiness. The security machine that used to operate behind-the-scenes now comes jarringly into front-of-stage focus.

For now, what constitutes a successful Euro, World Cup or Olympic Games is no longer a beautiful spectacle. It's getting everyone through it alive.

In its actions over the past week, the Islamic State and its adherents have shown us their ideal victim – the western sports fan.

People attending games combine the group's twin obsessions with the flaunting of fun – our so-called "decadence" – and the celebration of national identity. Our enemies understand that no bomb in a public square, train station or concert hall comes freighted with so much symbolic dread as one lit off in a sold-out arena.

If they are ever able to hit us squarely in that place, they will end – at least temporarily – our love of being in a crowd.

They won't be able to stop the games. It's too big a business. But stadiums will become like airports. Full screenings beforehand, rather than the quick pat-downs we've gotten used to. All threats will become credible, by virtue of being threats. Cops everywhere. Extended security perimeters. Escape routes. A shift to a new, high-level anxiety at every major event.

There will still be sports after a major terror attack. There must. But they won't be primarily celebrations any more. If the worst-case scenario ever comes to pass, we'll know in its aftermath what a true act of defiance looks like.