Summer Olympic Games

Jul 17, 2012 1:39 PM

No Worries: Olympic Officials Upbeat Despite Woes

LONDON (AP) - Apart from a wrong turn by a bus driver, a snarky tweet by a U.S. athlete, a few waterlogged venues and a lack of security guards, organizers are insisting everything is fine at the London Olympics less than two weeks before its opening ceremony.

Still, they had to scramble Tuesday to put the best face on an unfolding security debacle - as well as concerns about everything from transport to the rain - afflicting the games that start July 27.

"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 British troops - including some just back from Afghanistan - had to be called in on short notice to fill the gap. Thousands more military personnel had already been assigned to the games.

And outside Parliament, hundreds of London cabbies ignited new traffic jams as they protested their exclusion from special road lanes set up across London for Olympic athletes and VIPs.

Because of the security guards fiasco, G4S says it expects to lose between 35 million to 50 million pounds ($54 million to $78 million) on its Olympic contract, which is equal to about 12 percent of its annual profit.

G4S chief executive Nick Buckles gave a groveling mea culpa as he was being quizzed by angry British lawmakers in testimony that was broadcast live on television.

"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.

Some American security and law enforcement officials had privately expressed concerns as early as last year that there might not be enough security personnel for the London games.

"Now, it seems like some of those fears are being realized," a U.S. law enforcement official said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The FBI is sending about two dozen FBI agents to London to work on Olympic security, according to two U.S. government officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the plans.

Transport worries sprung up after two buses carrying Olympic teams from Heathrow - one for Americans, another with Australians - took a wrong turn and spent hours Monday trying to reach the athletes village.

"First day. First arrivals. It's going to happen," Jayne Pearce, head of press operations for the London organizing committee.

From the very start, London organizers have feared repeating the transit woes of the 1996 Atlanta Games, where bus drivers brought in from outside the city 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.

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.

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."

Coe also downplayed the complaints about traffic problems caused by the opening of a special Olympic traffic lane on the M4 highway from Heathrow into the city. He said despite one accident west of London, "the vast majority of people got through and it seems to be working quite well."

The "Games Lanes" reserved for Olympic officials, athletes and VIPs remain a contentious issue. Hundreds of London cab drivers blockaded the square outside Parliament on Tuesday, blaring horns and snarling traffic to protest their exclusion from the lanes.

The cabbies claim it will be all but impossible to ferry passengers around the city once most of the special lanes take effect July 25.

Yet the weather may prove an even more intractable problem.

Coe 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 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."

Robertson, a former army major, said athletes are "incredibly reassured to see the armed forces on the gate."

The London Olympics run until Aug. 12.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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