Paris attacks a gruesome reminder for sports fans


Spectators invade the pitch of the Stade de France after the international friendly between France and Germany on Friday. (Michel Euler/AP)

One of these days I’m going to need a new vacuum cleaner. As of this writing it’s 14 years, nine weeks and three days old. It still does the job, more or less, but it’s missing a few gadgets and it weezes a bit. It’s through overtime and into the shootout portion of its lifespan.

One of these days it’s going to say ‘No Mas’ to the zombie army of dust bunnies, hairballs and spilled kids’ snacks it’s battled admirably for well more than a decade and we’ll have to get something newer and shinier to do the same thing.

I think of how old my vacuum cleaner is regularly because I bought it on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, eyes reddened from walking through the electronics section, every new television showing a previously unimaginable disaster unfolding in real time. This after a morning at home, watching things change forever, holding my daughter, hoping my brother, who regularly visited the World Trade Center, wasn’t there that morning.

Most remember that day somewhat similarly. The shock and horror mixed in with the day-to-day: meetings at work; grocery shopping; buying a small appliance, all done in a daze.

But in this part of the world, at least, the shock of those events have slowly faded into memory. In large measure North Americans have been able to return to a comfortable routine, unbothered save for additional airport security.

And as a culture hooked on entertainment, a massive part of that routine has been flocking to major sporting events, perhaps the last place where people of all stripes can comfortably have a shared experience. It’s the essence of the seemingly never-ending sports boom. “Did you watch the game?” is one of the few conversation starters that can bridge the gaps created by modernity, given that even chats about the weather can be weighed down by the backstory.

All of which was fresh again as the events of Friday in Paris began spilling out. Every element of the attack is abhorrent and chilling in its own way – who can’t picture themselves eating on a terrace or attending a concert? Daily life – the best part of daily life – rendered a target.

But the most ambitious – not sure that’s the right word – aspect of the attacks were the bombings outside the Stade de France, where France and Germany were playing a soccer friendly in front of 80,000 fans.

By all accounts the worst-case scenario was avoided.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, at least one of the three suicide bombers in the vicinity of the stadium had a ticket to the match and apparently intended to detonate his device from the stands, hoping to trigger a deadly stampede to safety. He was turned away by an alert stadium security guard – who deserves a medal, we can all agree – about 15 minutes before the game. Before he could be apprehended he set off the shrapnel loaded vest but killed only himself. Another attacker blew himself up just outside the stadium and a third at a nearby fast food restaurant. Somehow just one civilian died in the attack but the message was sent.

The safety we take for granted is a perilously relative thing.

Not that anyone really needed to hear it.

Ever since 9/11 I’d be surprised if any sports fan, filing through security at an arena or stadium has been more than a few thoughts away from how glowing a target a major sports event would be for those bent on robbing those they hate of something they love.

Short of holding siege to a shopping mall at Christmas, targeting pilgrimages to our sporting cathedrals would arguably be the most fertile soil a terrorist or deranged solo actor determined to sow fear could possibly find.

Hollywood, as it does, bought into the scenario decades ago, be it with Black Sunday, released in 1977, where a terrorist plot to detonate the bomb-laden Goodyear blimp over the Super Bowl is foiled, or Sudden Death, where Jean-Claude Van Damme breaks up a hostage taking at Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final or Gotham City Field disintegrating in The Dark Knight Rises.

The gruesome possibility of life imitating art will seem closer at hand than ever after the events in Paris on Friday.

England plays France in a friendly at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday; a match that will resonate, coming so close to bombings across the Channel.

Looking ahead, Euro 2016 is set up to be played at 10 venues around France in seven months’ time; with two in the capital region: the Parc des Princes in the western part of the city and the Stade de France in the northern suburb of St. Denis. It is the first major soccer tournament in the country since the 1998 World Cup.

It will be played under even more vigilant security protocols than anything we’ve seen since 9/11. It’s unlikely anyone will complain about the additional searches and the ever-longer lineups.

Security at sporting events has become a staple of our times, with the bills to keep events like the Olympics or the World Cup free from a symbolic attack running into the billions, collectively.

It’s the price we pay and will continue to pay to watch others play under the illusion that we’re safe from those who want to make a statement with the blood of innocents.

In North America we’ve been lucky. In the days after I bought my vacuum I’d have wagered that one day, someday, the idea of an attack at one of our sports churches would prove too alluring; the bag checks and frisking too perfunctory.

The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 proved again how vulnerable we all our in the face of those determined to do harm. It echoed the bombing at Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996.

But for 14 years, nine months, three days and counting, our arenas and stadiums have remained safe haven.

Here’s hoping they forever are, the attacks in Paris proving the line thinner than we’d ever like to think.

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