As the old saying goes, you have to assume that if something can go wrong, there's every chance it will. In this article. David Griffiths discusses risks that need to be considered by the organisers of participation sports events.

Participation sports are enjoying a continuing worldwide boom. From Ascot to Adelaide bodies are squeezed into lycra, trainers dusted down and tyres pumped-up  as weekend athletes head out to test themselves in a growing range of running, cycling and obstacle-based events.
From the Big City Marathons attracting tens of thousands of competitors and mass media coverage to smaller local competitions, planning and delivering participant events has evolved into a highly complex business involving a wide range of functions, each with its own specific responsibilities and, of course, risks.
That was dramatically and tragically demonstrated back in 2013 when two bombs exploded close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, leaving three dead and a long tail of devastating personal injuries including three cases of lost limbs.
While Boston was an extreme case, it would be short-sighted to ignore its broader implications. Sports events, personalities and teams have always been a high-profile target for those looking to make a statement to a wider audience. 
Of course, this is not new. We are all familiar with the 1972 Munich Olympic Games massacre but fewer will recall that 59 years earlier the Suffragette Emily Davidson died when she threw herself under the King’s horse at the Grand National to give voice to her cause.
More recently a terrorist bomb exploded during a France vs Germany football match in Paris while, just this year, players were injured in a bomb attack on the Dortmund bus en route to a Champions League match.

Identifying and managing risk in a fast-moving world

In an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world, the prospect of a terrorist attack remains a major concern for participation event organisers. They add to the already complex web of risks which must be identified, evaluated and countered as part of a comprehensive event management policy.
A successful event requires meticulous planning at every single phase to ensure that it delivers on its promise to participants, spectators and other stakeholders. It is also essential to ensure that the organisers meet their civil, legal and contractual obligations and don’t leave themselves open to lawsuits and other claims should something go wrong. And, as the old saying goes, you have to assume that if something can go wrong there’s every chance it will.
The risks around participation events range from their cancellation - and the subsequent impact on participants, contractors and the organisers’ own business - to injury and damage to people and property while at the event.
Cancellation is, perhaps, the most obvious risk and can lead to significant losses of revenue and profit for rights holders or event organisers if they can’t fulfil their contractual commitments. Other stakeholders who could suffer losses include sponsors, licensees, caterers and even broadcasters who find themselves with no content, a disrupted schedule and unhappy advertisers.
While adverse weather is a clear threat to an organiser’s ability to go-ahead with an event, there is a range of other issues which, although far less obvious and more likely to slip under the radar, simply must be considered when compiling the ‘Risk Register‘ essential to every effective event management programme.

Risks to consider

By their very nature, mass participation events are designed to attract large numbers of competitors and are generally held on public roads and open facilities, such as parks, to ensure a healthy spectator turn-out, encourage the athletes and create a carnival atmosphere.
Clearly, the announcement of a high-level terrorism alert based on a clear threat of an attack on the public makes a mass participation sports event vulnerable and would lead any professional and sensible organiser to weigh-up their options which, under particular circumstances, are likely to cover cancellation even if that decision has not been ordered by the Police or licensing authorities.
Similarly, the outbreak of a communicable disease, impossible to predict at the time an event is being planned, could under some circumstances lead to cancellation if it thought likely to lead to the spread of the disease, fuelling the outbreak, putting medical and emergency services under intolerable pressure and putting the health - even the lives -  of spectators and competitors at risk.
The use of public transport is often central to an organiser’s plans to get competitors and spectators to an event without jamming the roads and other event infrastructure with private vehicles. Consequently, public transport failures whether due to a technical breakdown in services or even strike action by transport staff could have the effect of making an event impossible to access safely.
Emergency services, both medical and police, are also critical to the safe running of a mass participation event and their forced absence could also lead to cancellation. While, as with all risks, the scenarios may seem unlikely, these could include the non-availability of ambulance and other essential emergency staff because of industrial action or the absence of both police and emergency services because of unexpected commitment to another major incident.
Unlike elite level sports competitions or pop concerts, mass participation events are unlikely to be cancelled due to non-appearance – for whatever reason – of a particular athlete or team, although if a star performer has been signed-up to boost the profile of the event and enhance broadcast rights, their failure to compete could have a commercial impact which should be considered.


Over the years I have worked with countless event organisers to develop risk management strategies and drawing up a Risk Register of possible threats is central to that exercise.  While the threats we identify are generally similar in broad terms, every event is different and will have specific issues to identify and deal with depending on the timing, location, nature of the event, types of participant, crowd numbers and, of course, the underlying drumbeat of world affairs and associated threat levels.
In short, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to participation event risk management but there is a systematic and proven method for identifying and assessing risk and establishing appropriate insurance solutions to counter commercial loss and any other claims made against the organisers.
I’ll finish with another example of a potential risk which event organisers may fail to consider or choose to ignore. A period of national mourning, called perhaps after the death of a Head of State or to mark a national tragedy would inevitably lead to the short-notice cancellation of sports events leaving a long tail of commitments and liabilities which, if uninsured, could seriously compromise an organiser’s business.
Here in the UK, both the Queen and Prince Philip are now over 90 and, while insuring against the possibility of cancellation can be expensive, it is important for all organisers to consider the implications of a Royal death on the event and ensure a protocol is in place enabling a quick response should it occur during or immediately prior to the event. The result is successfully managed PR as well as reduced financial exposure.