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Secrecy surrounds Vancouver 2026 World Cup security plans

From 2010 to 2026: Has Vancouver learned its lessons in time for World Cup security?

Costs and contracts are not the only things that Vancouver’s FIFA World Cup 26 organizers are keeping under wraps.

B.C. Place Stadium’s general manager Chris May briefly appeared in a social media video on Tuesday, showing visiting World Cup planners a map of False Creek and downtown.

Upon closer inspection, it contains markings and patterns similar to those on a security roadblocks map produced for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Public access was severely restricted around eastern False Creek when B.C. Place hosted ceremonies, neighbour Rogers Arena was known as “Canada Hockey Place,” and the Olympic Village housed athletes at the new south shore condo complex.

When a reporter wanted to know what May’s map was about, he deferred to Jenny McKenzie, B.C. Place’s senior manager of marketing and communications.

“Further information regarding road networks will remain confidential until finalized,” McKenzie said by email.

Documents obtained last year from city hall, via freedom of information, show planning was underway to close streets surrounding B.C. Place at least every match day and every day preceding a match. That is a total of 14 days.

Part of Expo Boulevard could be taken over by broadcast trucks. City hall also released a photograph showing an artist’s rendering of a Canadian Soccer Association live site on the Concord Pacific lands.

The latest FIFA visit coincided with the White House budgeting US$16 million to begin preparations for World Cup security in the U.S., host of 78 of the 104 matches in June and July 2026.

Safety and security, at $73 million, was the biggest line-item on the City of Vancouver’s $230 million hosting budget released in January 2023.

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and Premier David Eby are both keeping the latest figures secret for now. Budgets for Public Safety Canada, RCMP and other federal departments to help keep Vancouver and Toronto safe could be announced when Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tables the federal budget on April 16.

The city’s FIFA operations lead, Taunya Geelhoed, acknowledged in a February 2022 safety and security planning email that the majority of risk in hosting the World Cup is based on security needs.

“It’s not our first rodeo,” said Bud Mercer, who was the chief operating officer for the RCMP-led Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit.

Mercer’s force of Mounties, municipal cops and Canadian Forces members swelled to 10,000 at Games time. It was responsible for 31 competition, training, accommodation and support venues at the 17-day Winter Olympics, which featured 2,600 athletes from 82 nations. Originally estimated at $175 million, safety and security eventually cost $900 million. Games-time incidents included protests, assaults and a $2-million ticketing fraud.

In 2026, B.C. Place will host seven matches spanning a 24-day period, including two featuring the Canadian men’s team. The other nations drawn to play here in the first round won’t be known until sometime in late 2025. The other spectator venue is expected to be the $104 million, 10,000-seat PNE Amphitheatre, targeted for a spring 2026 opening, as the centrepiece of the FIFA Fan Festival. The official watch party at Hastings Park is expected to operate for the duration of the 39-day tournament.

Though Vancouver was named one of the 16 FIFA host cities in June 2022, meetings began months earlier with personnel from the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service, B.C. Emergency Health Service, Emergency Management B.C., TransLink, Transit Police, City of Vancouver emergency planning and special events, YVR security and RCMP.

Last summer, the city’s FIFA secretariat hired former New Westminster and Transit Police chief Dave Jones on a $160,000-a-year contract as the safety and security lead.

Mercer said the security planning team should already be running tabletop exercises “where they start stressing every part of their plan to its breaking point, to see if it holds up, how they react, and if there's any gaps.”

Mercer said it is crucial for the security team to compile a comprehensive threat assessment and be ready to escalate if and when needed.

“Everything you do is based on your threat level that exists, and your threat assessment. Everything from those two things flows,” Mercer said. “What's the threat level? What are you prepared to live with?”

For Vancouver 2010, Mercer planned for a medium threat level at a time when the actual threat was deemed low. In November 2009, just a few months before the Games began, Mercer was called to Ottawa to meet with top aviation security officials because the air threat level had gone from low to medium.

“The simple question was, what are you guys doing about the change in the threat level in the air environment? For me, it was easy in the Olympics because I said very categorically in front of all the federal deputy ministers, ‘We're good to go.’ Everybody kind of paused and stared at me. I said all along, we were planning to a medium threat level.”

Mercer, in his second term as a Chilliwack city councillor, said he was approached about a year ago to work on the 2026 security team, but declined.

“I think there's people out there with the right experiences that are a little bit more current than I am right now,” he said.

Some things have changed. Some things have stayed the same. The head of security for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 in Australia and New Zealand offered a laundry list of the usual mega-event risks, plus some new ones.

“Numerous security risks include terrorism, corruption, cyber attack, hooliganism, field of play invasions, lone wolf attack, insider threats and drones, to name a few,” Andrew Cooke wrote on LinkedIn. “But, the greater threat will come from the adversaries targeting locations such as fan parks and open events which are soft ‘targets’.”

In Auckland, on opening day, a shooting at a construction site left two people dead. The incident was unrelated to the World Cup, but illustrated the challenge of hosting a mega-event in a major city.

Almost two years after Vancouver 2010, CONCACAF (soccer’s North and Central American and Caribbean zone) came to B.C. Place to hold its regional qualifying for the London Olympic women’s tournament.

Two days before kickoff, gangster Sandhip Dure was murdered at the restaurant in the tournament’s host hotel, Sheraton Wall Centre.

Members of the U.S. national team were near the lobby when it happened.

One of the VIP hotel guests was CONCACAF president Chuck Blazer, who blew the whistle on FIFA vote-buying the previous year. He secretly pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion in 2013 and become a wire-wearing informant for the FBI.

When authorities in the U.S. and Switzerland rounded-up FIFA executives just before the Canada 2015 Women’s World Cup, FIFA president Sepp Blatter cancelled his travel plans for fear of being the next one arrested. He appeared by video during a FIFA conference before the B.C. Place final. 

The 2026 tournament is primarily American-hosted, with Canada and Mexico playing supporting roles. The U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, which will help shape 2026 security, contains the usual concerns about “ambitious and anxious” China and “confrontational” Russia, as well as Iran and non-state actors, such as Hamas.

Beyond the ever-present threat of terrorism, the report also pinpointed harder-to-forecast “new technologies, fragilities in the public health sector, and environmental changes.”

“If we all sat in a room, we could come up with 100 things that are going to be different than 2010, because the world has changed,” Mercer said.

“Just like the world has changed, and sport and in politics, the world’s changed in policing too, these things move forward in lockstep. Everything that you're talking about is not going to be lost or foreign unto the law enforcement agencies that are securing these games.”

What will not change, Mercer said, is the goal: For visitors to remember the beauty of the country and the thrill of the competition.

“If that's what they remember, and they don't remember security, then I will believe that security was successful,” Mercer said.