PARIS — If, as the French prime minister says, Europe really is at war following the terror attacks on Paris and now Brussels, then a logical next step might be to put major sports events on hold, just as it did during the World Wars.
Specifically, give thought to postponing the European Championship. Allow the continent’s security services to concentrate fully over the coming months on things more important than securing a football tournament.
Police forces, including elite French RAID and GIGN units, will be sucked into multi-layered security details for the 24 teams gathering in France from June to July. Vast efforts will be deployed to keep millions of people safe at Euro 2016 stadiums and fan zones.
Is that the best use for them? Could and should these resources instead be poured into manhunts, wholly focused on unraveling the extremist networks robbing Europe of lives and freedoms? Or be tasked with determining which targets other than Paris and Brussels they have in their sights and making them more secure?
French criminologist Alain Bauer doesn’t believe Euro 2016 will distract security services from fighting terrorism. And in the face of such challenges, he says, “you don’t hide under the bed.”
“War, terrorism, natural disasters are managed through resilience,” he says.
Still, during World War I and II, sports took a back seat. There was no Tour de France from 1915-1919 or from 1940-1947. As Nazi troops spilled out across Poland in 1939, football in England was scaled back to limited regional league and cup matches. Sports made sacrifices: With its Highbury Stadium turned over to air raid duties, Arsenal played home matches at White Hart Lane, the ground of its North London rival Tottenham.
No one is suggesting that Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney should throw themselves into Europe’s fight as predecessors like Joseph Dines did. The Olympic gold medalist with Britain’s football team at the Stockholm Games of 1912 was killed on the Western front in 1918.
But in a war, organized, professional sports slide down the list of priorities. They shouldn’t stop entirely after Tuesday’s bomb attacks in Brussels. Far from it. Because putting life on hold would hand a victory to the killers.
But sports look and feel somewhat frivolous when ambulances are transporting dead and wounded to morgues and hospitals. In the weeks and months ahead, major tournaments should not overly divert energy, resources and focus from what must be Priority No. 1: Restoring peace to Europe and ending the horrible ‘new normal’ of regular terror causing us to ask whether life-affirming activities like sports are still worth the risk of massing together in soft targets.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said France remains determined to hold Euro 2016. But in such grim circumstances, the tournament is no longer a simple celebration of football. It is becoming a symbol of defiance. Hopefully, that won’t also make it more of a target.
“Our position is to not give in to the terrorists and to ensure that this big sporting event can take place,” Cazeneuve said. “We want to show our will to resist terror.”
It isn’t cowardly to suggest that holding the tournament against a background of such high security and fear might not be worth the effort or even be much fun. Having seen first-hand the aftermath of suicide bombings in November at France’s national stadium, arguing for a postponement to allow Europe to focus entirely on defeating such terror feels like good sense.
Metal bolts from the suicide vests were lodged in walls and tree trunks around the Stade de France that will host the Euro 2016 final and other matches. The bombers could have taken many lives, done untold damage had they detonated inside, not outside, the 80,000-seat arena.
If the tournament passes without incident and with joy, that will feel like an important victory against terrorism.
But if things go wrong, we’ll kick ourselves for having taken our eyes off the ball.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester