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As Olympics near, forecast is gloomy, even by London standards

With the London Olympic Games two weeks off, the city is grappling with a transportation nightmare, more security challenges and even worse weather than usual.

July 13, 2012|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • A boat operated by Protection Services International, which will offer top security and easier transport for the super rich during the Olympics in London, travels on the Thames this month. For most visitors to the Games, transportation is likely to be a challenge and security is posing problems of its own.
A boat operated by Protection Services International, which will offer… (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated…)

LONDON — Can the Games actually begin?

From airport tie-ups to security stumbles to the 50 shades of gray of London's "summer," British officials and organizers of the Olympics are fighting rising concerns over how ready this city is to host the world's biggest sporting event, which kicks off in two weeks.

Problems on London's overloaded transport network have angered commuters and embarrassed the government. Beach volleyball could turn into mud wrestling if record wet weather persists, though poncho and "brolly" vendors stand to earn gold.

And on Thursday, officials announced that the massive security operation surrounding the Olympics will be even more heavily militarized than anticipated, with an extra 3,500 British troops being summoned to back up the 13,500 already assigned. Some are likely to be soldiers freshly returned from combat in Afghanistan, hoping for rest but instead being pressed into duty as part ofBritain'slargest peacetime mobilization of its armed forces in memory.

The additional personnel is necessary because the private security company hired to provide up to 20,000 guards now acknowledges that it will probably fail to reach its target. Government ministers are furious, but say they have little choice except to tap the military, which is already struggling with major spending cuts.

"There is no question of Olympic security being compromised," Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons in a hastily convened session Thursday. "Our troops are highly skilled and highly trained, and this task is the most important facing our nation today."

But she was ridiculed by opposition politicians, who called the situation a huge shambles.

"Please, get these security problems … sorted out and stop letting everybody else down," said Yvette Cooper of the Labor Party.

It was more bad news for the Olympics in a week already full of it.

Since London won the right to host the Summer Games seven years ago, skeptics have questioned whether the British capital's creaky infrastructure could support such a colossal extravaganza, particularly the city's aging transportation network, including the world's oldest subway system. In the last few days, plenty of travelers by air and on land have joined the chorus of doubters.

At Heathrow Airport, which handles the most passengers of any airport in Europe, visitors have been enduring lines lasting as long as three hours to get through passport control and customs. A grainy cellphone video shot Thursday morning showed passengers reading books or simply looking miserable as they waited, while several immigration officers' booths stood empty.

As athletes begin pouring in from around the world this weekend, critics say that Britain'sunderstaffed border force risks becoming a "borders farce." The government is calling in 500 reinforcements, but an immigration watchdog group has warned that many of the temporary officers will have had only minimal training.

"We've obviously been planning this for ages," Damian Green, the harried-sounding immigration minister, said in a television interview, though to many viewers it did not seem obvious at all. "We've been ramping up the numbers throughout the summer until we hit the full complement … on Sunday."

Railway operators and transportation officials staged a dress rehearsal this week at five London stations for the expected Olympic traffic. At London Bridge, one of the Games' main transit hubs, passengers were funneled into queues and waved to and fro by railway staff members inside a station built around the time of Queen Victoria.

Commuters, some of whom complained of missing connections, were not amused.

"Complete confusion," one traveler grumbled to the Guardian newspaper. "Disgusting," another declared.

For motorists, the situation hasn't been much better. Part of the M4, the freeway that connects Heathrow to central London, has been shut for days since a crack was discovered on a bridge. A reopening planned Monday may not happen, fueling fears of a total transportation meltdown in the offing.

"I'm thinking you'd have been faster on horseback," a Twitter user told an exasperated driver.

Londoners accustomed to grousing about the dratted weather may now have to get used to hearing millions of foreign visitors do the same, with considerably less affection.

Both April and June were the wettest such months in more than a century, since records started being kept. Last month was the coolest June in 21 years, with an average temperature of about 54 degrees.

The nasty conditions have already played havoc with outdoor events over the last few months. In April, an Olympic tuneup equestrian event had to be canceled because of rain. Last week, an important cricket match was washed out in central England.

Many of the Olympic venues are open to the elements, including the main stadium in East London and the equestrian area in Greenwich, south of the Thames.

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