He’s been trained by the FBI, works closely with Chinese intelligence and is bloody elusive when it comes to getting him photographed for magazine interviews. Karolin Schaps tracks down Peter Ryan, the London Olympics’ secret policeman
Peter Ryan is proving elusive. After expressing some reluctance to having his photo taken for this interview, he has now fled the country for six weeks. It would probably be unfair to liken a man who has been been trained by the FBI prior to becoming chief superintendent of New South Wales, and is now security boss of the 2012 Olympics, to Carlos the Jackal, but he’s definitely a hard man to pin down.
This much I had already learned from speaking to him. What’s the plan for London 2012? “We’ve had initial meetings about a variety of things, but I can’t talk about what we’re doing.” What did you do at the FBI? “The more you talk about security, the less you have it.” I suppose it’s good that the man charged with ensuring public safety during the biggest event London has ever seen should be on his guard.
And it is a wariness born from experience. The Lancaster-born expert was in charge of delivering security services to the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and although this is where he really earned his stripes, he came under serious media pressure during his time there. He had become commissioner of police for New South Wales in 1996 with the task of cleaning up notoriously corrupt elements within the police force. A trawl through the NSW press during this period shows that Ryan was alternately feted and vilified. “I was never allowed to forget the fact I was a ‘pommy’,” he reportedly said soon after he left the job in 2002. Although Ryan claimed victory in the campaign to stamp out corruption, questions were raised over whether he’d been entirely successful. His term ended two years before the end of his contract, amid fervid newspaper speculation about whether he jumped or was pushed.
But nobody argued about one thing: he oversaw the public’s safety during Games that were almost universally accepted as a total success, and in 2002 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) appointed him security adviser, a post he has held ever since. Right now, he is working on preparations for London, Beijing and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It all sounds terribly intriguing, but sadly, Ryan is keeping tightlipped on the details. He explains that if he were to reveal the exact nature of his work, he would undo its effect.
Can he at least explain his remit? “I am advising the IOC on how things are going in all three venues and on the transfer of knowledge from previous Games to the next organising committee.” He sees himself as “a bridge between the past and the present”, which allows him to advise host cities on potential security problems, he says.
He does reveal he will be in China for a week each month until July, when he will fly out a final time ahead of the Games. The 63 year old admits it’s pretty gruelling. “I love it; you meet so many people. It’s just long hours – I get about three hours’ sleep,” he says. Ryan is allowed to move freely in and out of China and is working with the country’s intelligence service. “I’m able to see things and meet people that wouldn’t usually be allowed,” he says tantalisingly. But of course, he can’t reveal any more.
People might stand outside the Beijing stadium with placards saying ‘Support Darfur, stop the genocide’, which is a lot different from making a bomb in your bath at home and blowing it up on the tube
Hard as Ryan is working now on China, terrorism is less of a concern for Beijing’s organisers than London’s, as access to China is relatively restricted. “In China you’ve got to get visas, there’s a tightly regulated entry control, strict immigration policies and customs. It’s a relatively isolated country from the rest of the world.” Plus, China’s political stance is different from the UK’s. “People might stand outside the Beijing stadium with placards saying ‘Support Darfur, stop the genocide’, which is a lot different from making a bomb in your bath at home and blowing it up on a tube train. It’s a completely different risk environment,” Ryan says.
Ryan knows plenty about the risk environment in London. He was chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police in Chelsea in December 1983 when the IRA planted a bomb near Harrods department store. Three of Ryan’s officers and three members of the public were killed. “I think it was the worst day, not only of my career but of my life,” he said when ITN interviewed him the following day.
The experience set Ryan on a crusade to design anti-terrorism elements into buildings. Most recently, he has led Hyder Consulting’s critical infrastructure and resilience division, a job he recently left to concentrate on his other commitments. The approach which Ryan pushed at Hyder was to “design out terrorism, design in safety”. He urges designers to think about the security risks embedded in construction materials. “Our cities are made of glass. Having been involved myself in a terrorist incident, I have seen what glass can do to people. There are more injuries caused by glass than the actual explosion itself.”
Building reported in January that Hyder was in talks with the United Arab Emirates’ government about providing security services. Surely Ryan can tell us a little about this? He frowns at me over the rim of his glasses for an uncomfortably long time and says finally: “We’ve had some response from the UAE, but that’s all we want to talk about really. Certain things that we are doing are confidential and we have signed all sorts of confidentiality agreements. Some of them relate to very high-level security, which is very sensitive.”
Another security lockdown by this most secretive of policemen …