Anxiety hanging over London as Olympic opening nears

Olympics • Clouds of anxiety cover London in the run-up to Friday's Opening Ceremony.
This is an archived article that was published on in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

London • It seemed like such a great idea, seven years ago.

Give the Olympic Games to London, where they would return for the first time since 1948, and allow Lord Sebastian Coe — the head of the bid team and himself an esteemed former Olympian — the chance to fulfill a promise that an Olympics in the United Kingdom would "change the face of British sport" and inspire people around the world.

Maybe now, they're just hoping for a little sunshine and nobody with a gun.

Just days before the Opening Ceremony, organizers are still straining to overcome a series of embarrassments — most prominently, a staggering security fiasco in which private firm G4S failed to provide even half of the 10,400 guards for which it was responsible as part of its $446 million contract with organizers.

Beyond that, the budget has skyrocketed in a poor economy.

Transportation glitches have struck fear into the hearts of daily commuters and led some athletes to tweet about their problems upon reaching the city. Especially rainy weather, the wettest in London since record-keeping began, has had the media already referring to the "Soggy Olympics" and openly mocking the organizers — though the weather has improved a bit this week.

"We've got an advanced case of Olympo-funk," Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in The Sun newspaper. "We agonize about the traffic, when our transport systems are performing well and the world's athletes are arriving on time. ... We gnaw our fingernails about the blinking weather, when it seems to be brightening up a bit — and anyway, it's England in July for goodness sake and a spot of rain never hurt anyone."

No matter what, the Olympics are almost here.

The Olympic flame is in the city, and the excitement of the pending party is starting to percolate — even if U.S. hurdler Kerron Clement was among a group of athletes whose bus got lost ferrying them to the Olympic Park.

"Um, so we've been lost on the road for 4hrs," Clement tweeted. "Not a good first impression London."

Nine million people had viewed the torch before it reached London, and officials have had to put more money into crowd control along its 8,000-mile route because they underestimated the number of people who would turn up to see it — just weeks after millions came out for patriotic celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.

Other underestimations are still hanging over the Olympics, though, and could linger even beyond the first marquee showdown between superstar swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte on the first full day of competition Saturday.

While neon Olympic banners festoon the city and athletes move into their village — Cuba and Denmark were the first to hang flags off their balconies — the security problem especially has resonated in a city where suicide-bombers killed 52 people and injured some 700 in the so-called "7/7" attacks the morning after London was awarded the Olympics over Paris in 2005.

Lawmakers have assailed the security company and its Chief Executive Nick Buckles, who agreed in a hearing before a Parliamentary committee that the G4S failure was a "humiliating shambles" for the country.

As a result, the government was forced to order up 3,500 military troops to help fill the gap, many of them just back from the war in Afghanistan.

That hasn't helped a budget that has soared from an estimated $3.75 billion when London won the Olympics to about $17.1 billion, according to the House of Commons' public accounts committee — proving London is just the latest city to drastically underestimate the real costs at the start of the process.

It's all enough to really sharpen the national culture of complaint.

"We're looking at something above and beyond the solace and comfort that the British seek in gentle moaning," freelance writer Dan Hancox told The New York Times. "The Olympics is actively antagonizing people."

The rowing and equestrian venues were waterlogged. One survey showed 23 percent of the city's hotel rooms are not booked. Cash machines around the city reportedly have run out of money in recent weeks.

The military has its biggest battleship stationed on the Thames and rockets on apartment rooftops, and organizers have withdrawn 500,000 unsold soccer tickets — in England! — and plan to reduce the capacity at some stadia by cordoning off certain sections.

Oh, and border guards are expected to strike on Thursday, the day before the Olympics officially begin, in a dispute over pay and job losses.

"Let's no longer beat about the bush: This summer's Olympic Games are going to be a catalog of disasters," the Times of London wrote in a recent editorial. "Not everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Only a lot of it."

Yet organizers have insisted the problems are minor, and that things will run smoothly — including the opening of the venues, not all of which were finished last week.

"Our venues will be open on time," Coe promised. "There is still stuff to be done, but it's about dressing up. We'll be ready."

Certainly, the athletes will be ready.

The Olympics are expected to showcase dozens of riveting performances, including the much-anticipated duel in the pool between Phelps, the 16-time gold medalist, and Lochte.

Sprinter Usain Bolt hopes to hold off a challenge from fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake in the 100 meters on the track after dazzling the Beijing Games four years ago, and South Africa's Oscar Pistorius will become the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics. The global superstars of Team USA will go for gold again in men's basketball, among other popular story lines.

Yet the element of disgust remains.

Last Tuesday, at the height of the security scandal, the Guardian newspaper ran a sarcastic headline that seemed to speak for all of the skeptics.

"Ten days to the Games," it read, "what could go wrong?"

Twitter: @MCLTribune —

London 2012 Opening Ceremony

P Friday, 6:30 p.m. (tape)

TV • Ch. 5