Playing it safe: Olympics venue feels like a war zone
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Friday, July 27, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
LONDON — “Panic on the streets of London,” Morrissey sang for the British band The Smiths, and that might seem an apt reaction to the buildup for the 2012 Olympics, which officially light the torch on Friday night.
A military jet scrambled to intercept a passenger plane that accidentally veered into no-fly territory over the city, frightening folks on the ground.
Both aircraft landed safely.
Worry about terrorist drone strikes prompted the military to place anti-aircraft artillery atop apartment buildings near the Olympic Park in East London. Residents of those buildings howled in protest, to no avail.
Yet there's been no gunfire from anyone's penthouse.
Authorities evacuated The Westfield, a major mall near the Olympic Park, on Thursday when someone pulled an alarm.
It was false.
People were shopping again within a half-hour.
What next? The guards at Buckingham Palace walking off the job?
This is life for Londoners right now, and it's a royal pain. But it's come without the punch so far, and that's the way the British government and Olympic organizers hope to keep it, no matter the cost in money, manpower or inconveniences.
“You can never provide a 100 percent guarantee, but what I've seen is, I think, a fully joined-up effort that involves one of the best armed services anywhere in the world,” Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters. “I'm confident we can deliver on that.”
Boris Johnson, London's colorful mayor, found a deft description in saying that security preparations were going “worryingly well.”
The topic became especially combustible last week when G4S, a private contractor the British government commissioned to protect these games, fell 3,500 short of hiring and training the 10,400 officers it promised. Parliament, easily riled in the best of circumstances, angrily responded with harsh rebukes, and more importantly, the government deployed members of the military to make up the difference.
Now there are 18,200 troops participating in Olympic security — nearly double the British presence in combat in Afghanistan — and this city of 8 million indeed has the feel of a war zone.
It's not just the Olympic venues, historic monuments and transport modes. The Westfield mall at lunchtime had, on just one floor, no fewer than a dozen uniformed soldiers bearing machine guns and many more metro police.
“Security has not been compromised,” said Sebastian Coe, head of the London organizing committee and famed British distance runner. “... We will remedy this. I can't put it more simply than this: G4S expected people to materialize, and when they didn't, we moved very quickly to fill that gap.”
The British have a history of anti-terrorism practice: from the decades-long (now dormant) duel with the Irish Republican Army to continuously combating various terrorist groups within the borders. Many consider the police and intelligence communities among the world's best financed and operated, and their stance is to be excessively prepared.
That might best explain why London organizing committee CEO Paul Deighton bluntly called G4S's effort “a big disappointment.” Some in Parliament want the firm to reimburse the government for troops used in place of people it was supposed to hire. Even Cameron stepped into the fray by vowing to “go after” G4S once the games end.
In response, G4S said: “Significant numbers of candidates are now reaching the final stages of the security training and accreditation process each day.”
But the vision of novices protecting lives undoubtedly did little to assuage concern.
The Olympic Park strikes the greatest contrast with past games. The mile-long, multiple-venue area is completely wrapped in 13-foot wire fencing, even between the venues. Walking through it has the feel of a metal maze — nothing like that of recent hosts.
In another unprecedented move, no one can enter the park without security clearance or — beginning on Friday — a ticket. That's unpopular here, as it was in Vancouver two years ago when organizers eventually caved to public pressure and removed a wire fence that kept visitors from the Olympic flame. But this isn't just the flame; it's the entire complex.
Despite the security spat and other problems mostly related to transportation, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge called London's preparation “a great success” and said he's “optimistic it will all go well.”
Maybe the most compelling sign of that confidence: The popular beach volleyball competition will be held within a couple of blocks of 10 Downing St., the prime minister's home. Prince Harry himself plans to catch some of the bikini-clad women's action on Aug. 8.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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