x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

London goes for gold (cautiously)

With 100 days to go, security, transportation and a drought are headaches for the 2012 Games organisers.

Britain will mount its biggest peacetime security operation for the London Olympic Games. Organisers have to grapple with security and transport concerns, and, surprisingly, a major drought in southern England.
Britain will mount its biggest peacetime security operation for the London Olympic Games. Organisers have to grapple with security and transport concerns, and, surprisingly, a major drought in southern England.

LONDON // Organisers of the London Olympics are grappling with security, transportation and drought concerns with just 100 days to go until the opening ceremony.

Sebastian Coe, the organiser in chief, is expected to tell the public today that everything is in place to deliver the most exciting Games ever. It will be a bold claim after the orchestrated lavishness of Beijing and the gold standard set in Sydney eight years ago.

There may be reasons for Lord Coe's optimism. Work on Olympic venues, accommodation and infrastructure are at least on schedule, if not well ahead. The 200-hectare Olympic Park is transforming a rundown area of east London and advance ticket sales for all events have been massively oversubscribed.

Yet, there are concerns that will grow, not lessen, in the 100 days between now and the July 27 opening ceremony.

Security tops that list and no amount of planning and intelligence can entirely eradicate the risks despite a budget approaching US$900 million (Dh3.3 billion) and involving 13,500 military personnel, 12,000 police and more than 16,000 private security staff. On top of that, there will be snipers in helicopters, surface-to-air missiles batteries, jet fighter patrols and two Royal Navy warships on the Thames.

Fears have been expressed that too much emphasis is being placed on security in London at the expense of other Olympic venues, but a Home Office spokesman said yesterday: "We want to reassure everyone that we will leave nothing to chance in our aim to deliver a Games that London, the UK and the whole world will enjoy."

It is not, though, simply the spectre of an attack by Al Qaeda or Irish republican dissidents that haunts the Games but the possibility of protests by individuals, particularly anti-capitalist activists or environmentalists opposed to sponsorship deals involving companies such as BP, Dow Chemical and Rio Tinto.

These fears were heightened 11 days ago when a lone protester swam out into the Thames and caused the temporary abandonment of the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race.

"It just takes - and is likely to be - one idiot [to disrupt the Olympics]. You can never completely remove it, but you can do everything possible to protect the interests of the athletes by minimising it," said Colin Moynihan, the chairman of the British Olympic Association.

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, added: "Security is obviously a great priority for us and we're making sure everything is in place. We think the risk level has come down but clearly you can never be complacent."

Yet Mr Johnson, a Conservative, might not be mayor in 100 days' time. Next month, he and the Labour contender, Ken Livingstone, will engage in a bitter election battle and, should the latter win, there could be a shake-up in existing Olympic plans, particularly over transport.

Londoners are already concerned about gridlock on the capital's over-burdened transport system and "Red Ken" has promised to overhaul the Olympic Route Network on the roads if he wins the election.

"It is ridiculous that corporate hangers-on at the Olympics will be ferried along special lanes in a fleet of imported BMWs when London has the finest taxi service in the world," he said last week. "Athletes and their team need special treatment to ensure they get to their events on time. Corporate sponsors do not."

Additional transport fears were raised by a committee of MPs this month who warned that Heathrow might be incapable of handling the arrival of thousands of extra passengers for the Olympics.

Planes could become stacked up on runways as long queues built up at immigration, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee warned Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt in a letter.

John Whittingdale, the committee chairman, told Mr Hunt that MPs who had met with executives from BAA, the Heathrow operators, "did not leave the briefing confident that Heathrow was ready to cope with the arrival of a huge number of competitors, Olympic family and visiting tourists in timely fashion".

In response, the Home Office said extra staff would be on duty during the Olympics but warned no compromise would be made on security checks.

What no government department can do anything about, though, is the severe drought currently affecting central and southern England. The Olympics are expected to increase water demand in London by five per cent at a time when water resources are nearing record lows.

The Environment Agency says that plans to use water from "sustainable supplies" are in place to ensure the Games will not be adversely affected, with emergency extractions from boreholes and reservoirs ready to boost levels. Water restrictions, including hosepipe bans, were introduced earlier this month across a swathe of southern Britain, partially with the need to conserve supplies for the Olympics in mind.

dsapsted@thenational.ae