London 2012 Olympics: With six months to go, concerns remain

January 26, 2012

Over the past four years, a formerly contaminated plot of land in east London has been transformed from a barren moonscape to a village with sporting complexes, an enormous park and a red loop-de-loop sculpture that soars higher than the Statue of Liberty.

“We’re in the tidying-up phase,” tour guide Tim Martin tells his group outside the shiny new Olympic Stadium that will host the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympic Games exactly six months from Friday.

While construction of the Olympic Park has proceeded relatively smoothly in this area called Stratford (not to be confused with Shakespeare’s home town, Stratford-upon-Avon), concerns over security, transportation logistics and cost overruns remain.

With more than 10,000 athletes and 8.8 million ticket holders expected, organizers are wary of appearing paranoid, but security threats have been at the forefront of concerns ever since the International Olympic Committee awarded the bid to London in 2005. The day after the bid was announced, London was attacked by homegrown terrorists who killed 52 people in a string of transit bombings.

London has been accused of woefully underestimating the costs of securing the 34 venues — most of which are within the Olympic Park but which also include iconic landmarks Wimbledon, Lord’s Cricket Ground and the Horse Guards Parade, a regal setting a stone’s throw from the prime minister’s doorstep. The government recently announced that it would nearly double its budget and assign 13,500 troops to help guard venues and assist police — more than the number of British troops currently serving in Afghanistan.

In addition to the troops and Metropolitan Police, 10,000 privately hired guards will be deployed; the Royal Navy’s largest battleship will be moored at Greenwich, where the equestrian events will take place; and bomb-disposal units, helicopters, fighter jets and ground-to-air missiles will be on standby.

While few are balking at the $1.6 billion the government has allocated for security, organizers face an uphill battle in convincing Britons that shelling out billions on a sporting extravaganza is the best use of public funds, especially at a time of financial belt-tightening.

The budget, the bulk of which is underwritten by the state, has ballooned from $3.7 billion to $14.5 billion. And recent announcements — the bill for the Opening Ceremonies choreographed by “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle was recently doubled, for instance — suggests organizers are gobbling up funds. Last month, the government’s spending watchdog warned there was a “real risk” of costs exceeding their budget.

“We have to be very careful to pay attention to value for money in what we are doing,” said Paul Deighton, the chief executive of the London organizing committee, who emphasized that preparations were running smoothly and the $14.5 billion figure likely will be “more than sufficient for what we need.”

Another challenge is lighting the Olympic flame within the locals. In a recent poll, 32 percent of the British public said they were excited for the Games; 54 percent said they were not.

Partly, that’s just being British. While the British rally behind their own with patriotic fever, they aren’t prone to unbridled enthusiasm, preferring instead to relish in mishaps. In 2010, when Canadians were stunned by the British media’s criticism of the Vancouver Games, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde responded, “Make no mistake: No one will be cheerily undermining London 2012 more than the British themselves. It’s what we do.”

Still, many commentators think the massive (if technologically bumpy) scramble for tickets — soccer is currently the only event with unsold tickets — suggest a flag-waving nation will emerge this summer. Just weeks before Opening Ceremonies, Britain will celebrate the queen’s 60 years on the throne with a river pageant expected to ignite a royal frenzy.

And as Britons start to win medals, the mood will lift. Despite being chided by the Australians during the last Summer Games for being good only at “sitting down” sports like rowing and cycling, Britain came in fifth in the medals table.

London will also be judged by what happens in Stratford. London won its Olympic bid largely on the promise to regenerate east London, and while the Olympic Park stands as an advertisement for British engineering and project management, it won’t be clear for years if London will achieve the regeneration legacy that has proved elusive for so many other host cities.

In the more immediate future, organizers are hoping to avoid the travel chaos that plagued the Atlanta Games in 1996 by insisting that games-goers arrive by public transport. Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, plans to cope with the deluge by building a temporary terminal just for athletes and officials departing London between Aug. 13 and 15.

Transport officials have sent more than a flutter of panic through taxi drivers forced to navigate London’s narrow, busy roads by designating about 30 miles as “Games Lanes” that will have periods of exclusive use for media, sponsors and officials.

Matthew Sinclair, the director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a lobby group, said that the special traffic lanes could sour relations with Londoners, especially the thousands who failed to secure tickets.

“If your experience of the Olympics is spending [billions of dollars] to see BMWs with dignitaries sweeping across the city, it could rub people the wrong way,” he said.

Looming large over London are the Beijing Games, which were marked by spectacle and efficiency. Many predict that London, lacking such deep pockets, instead will rely on its wit and charm.

Perhaps London Mayor Boris Johnson gave a taste of the quirky, humorous atmosphere to come at a 2008 party in Beijing to mark the handover of the Olympic flag.

Johnson said: “I say to the world: Ping-pong is coming home!”

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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