Olympic organizers put cheerful spin on games woes
LONDON: Apart from a wrong turn by a bus driver, a snarky tweet by a U.S. athlete, a few waterlogged venues and a scramble to find enough security guards, everything is fine at the London Olympics less than two weeks before opening ceremony, organizers insist.
Still, they had to scramble Tuesday to put the best face on an unfolding security debacle — as well as other concerns — afflicting the games, which start in 10 days.
"Let's put this in proportion," games chairman Sebastian Coe told reporters. "This has not, nor will it, impact on the safety and security of these games, that of course is our No. 1 priority."
Yet his efforts were undercut in Parliament, where the chief executive of the G4S security group acknowledged that his company's failure to recruit enough Olympic staff had embarrassed the entire nation. Some 3,500 more British troops — including some just back from Afghanistan — had to be called in on short notice to fill the gap.
The head of G4S, Nick Buckles, gave a groveling mea culpa as he was being quizzed by angry British lawmakers in testimony that was broadcast live.
"It's a humiliating shambles for the country, isn't it?" asked Labour lawmaker David Winnick.
"I cannot disagree with you," Buckles said.
Still, Buckles was hard-pressed to explain why his company had failed to inform officials until only two weeks before the start of the 2012 Olympic Games that its recruitment efforts had failed.
But the company will pay for its mistakes. G4S says it expects to lose between 35 million pounds and 50 million pounds ($54 million-$78 million) on the contract, which is equal to about 12 percent of its annual profit.
A day earlier, a few buses carrying Olympic athletes from Heathrow took a wrong turn as athletes started arriving for the games, a showcase moment if there ever was one. And the special "games lane" that they traveled on forced other London drivers into a miles-long traffic jam.
The lost buses — one for Americans, another for Australians — touched a nerve. From the very start, London transport organizers have feared repeating the transport woes of the 1996 Atlanta Games, where one of the biggest problems was having bus drivers brought in from outside the city who didn't know their way around.
That allegedly happened Monday in London, even though Heathrow sailed through its heaviest passenger day ever with short immigration lines and plenty of help for Olympic travelers.
"First day. First arrivals. It's going to happen," said Jayne Pearce, head of press operations.
Coe urged optimism, despite a Twitter storm that erupted when American hurdler Kerron Clement took to the social networking site to express his frustration with what he said was a four-hour bus ride from Heathrow to the athletes village.
Coe said Clement's bus journey actually took 2 1/2 hours and most athletes experienced no problems in reaching the village.
"Apart from a misturning and a couple of tweets we're in pretty good shape," Coe quipped. "The majority of athletes got in in good shape and on time. When they were met by our village mayor and chief executive they were busily tweeting saying how much they were enjoying village life. Ninety-eight percent of these journeys went without a hitch at all."
Coe also downplayed the complaints about traffic problems caused by the opening of a special Olympic lane on the M4 highway from Heathrow into the city.
"I understand there was an accident at Reading, which slowed some stuff down, but the vast majority of people got through and it seems to be working quite well," he said.
But Coe also said "we've got mops and buckets" to deal with the incessant rain that has soaked London for most of the summer. The ground at two key venues is waterlogged — the rowing at Eton Dorney west of London and the equestrian at Greenwich Park, south of the Thames river.
"It is a problem," Coe said. "It is causing us extra challenges now."
Coe said organizers are resurfacing areas at the two venues, laying down temporary tracking for vehicles and spectators and putting up special tent shelters to keep the work force dry.
Although forecasters say the weather could clear in time for the July 27 start of the games, Coe noted that organizers have contingency plans in case it doesn't.
Extra competition days were built into the schedule "as a last resort" for rowing and equestrian. There is an alternate course available for sailing events at Weymouth, in southeast England, and Wimbledon has a retractable roof over Centre Court for tennis.
Olympic Park, however, still resembles a construction site, with workers laying cables, installing seats and landscaping grounds Tuesday.
Not to worry, Coe said.
"Our venues will be open on time," he promised. "There is still stuff to be done, but it's about dressing up. We'll be ready."
Meantime, Britain's Olympics minister, Hugh Robertson, said the deployment of soldiers at Olympic Park would give people "enormous reassurance."--(AP)
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