Report: London Olympic Games

London Olympics athletes get VIP treatment - but what about the Brit in the street?

Canada's women basketball team members at the London 2012 Olympic Games village in Stratford, 24 July, 2012
Canada's women basketball team members at the London 2012 Olympic Games village in Stratford, 24 July, 2012 Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

It's been a long time since London last hosted the Olympic Games. Back in 1948 the city was recovering from the ravages of World War II to such an extent that the event was dubbed the "Austerity Games". Despite grim economic times, facilities are a little better this time.

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Facilities were so threadbare that visiting athletes had to share bunk beds in school classrooms in west London before they ventured to the main Games site at Wembley Stadium.

Provisions weren't much better, either. The French delegation resorted to having steaks and wine transported in a refrigerated train from Paris while the Americans had fruit and bread flown in from Los Angeles. The munificent Danes donated 160,000 eggs to the common weal.

There's no need for such extreme measures at the 2012 Games.

"We have done better today," London mayor Boris Johnson said on the eve of the 2012 Games. "We have done everything in our power to welcome the greatest athletes in the world and to make them feel at home."

  • The 17,000 competitors and team officials will stay in the Athletes Village at the heart of the 200-hectare Olympic Park;
  • Nearly 3,000 apartments will house them for the 16 days of competition;
  • A massive catering hall will serve 60,000 meals a day;
  • Once they've refuelled those perfectly honed bodies, the athletes will be able to relax in the onsite bars or back in their rooms where there'll be internet access.

"It's all about the athletes," Charles Allen, the mayor of the village, added. "They've been training for years for this. Early morning sessions, hours of practice with all the highs and lows of those things.

"When they're with us we want to make their stay great and we want to make sure they leave with happy memories of London's athletes' village."

The chances for universal euphoria nearly never got off the ground.

In the prelude to the Games, organisers had to rethink their security arrangements after contractor G4S admitted it would only be able to provide 7,000 of the promised 10,000 trained staff to supervise checkpoints and patrol venues.

On 11 July Home Secretary Theresa May authorised the call-up of 3,500 extra troops to bail out the private company.

The debacle led to a plunge in G4S's share price and red faces around government corridors.

G4S's humiliation was completed three days before the opening ceremony when the government announced that 1,200 troops who'd been placed on stand-by after the initial revelations would be deployed.

 

Paul Deighton, the chief executive of the organising committee, brushed off the crisis. "You can't be certain about anything with a temporary workforce. But we have replaced it with a better trained force that's why we are confident."

Chinese swimmers perform strength exercises at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park in Stratford
Chinese swimmers perform strength exercises at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park in Stratford Reuters/Toby Melville/Files

His unctuous response to a public relations disaster came just as the full impact of the travel restrictions on Londoners were coming into force. Drivers have been told to avoid central London during the Games and non-Games travellers have been urged to allow extra time for their trips.

The grumbling will grow once the fines start rolling in for motorists inadvertently creeping into the 30-odd miles of Games Lanes in the Olympic Route Network around London.

The restrictions have simply enhanced a general malaise in Britain emanating from months of terrible weather. Many fear that the Games have no connection with the people who are bearing the brunt of the costs and the inconveniences.

Lord Coe, the chairman of the organising committee and a former Olympic 800-metres gold medallist, has been as silky off the track as he was on it.

He has been assiduously eroding the perception of elitism by pointing to the legacy that will flow from the Games. There will be a new velodrome in east London, a swimming pool and of course the Olympic Stadium - though its future is still very much up for grabs.

And he can confidently point to the bottom line - bums on seats.

Nearly nine million tickets have been sold for events at the 34 venues around London and further afield in Glasgow, Cardiff, Weymouth and Newcastle.

 

In 1908 when London stepped in for Rome to host the summer games, 22 nations and around 2,000 athletes came to the city. A century later there'll be competitors from more than 200 countries vying for glory in 302 events.

An athlete waits to be served in the dining hall inside the Olympic Games Village in Stratford
An athlete waits to be served in the dining hall inside the Olympic Games Village in Stratford Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

It's a far cry from the comparative cosiness of yesteryear. The Olympic Games are now a multi-billion-euro industrial-pleasure complex with sponsors taking just as much pride of place as the record breakers.

In 1948, one of the star performers was the Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen. Temptation must have been great to call her The Flying Dutchwoman. Instead the 30-year old mother-of-two was nicknamed "The Flying Housewife", as she collected four gold medals.

Back in Beijing four years ago, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt electrified the Bird's Nest Stadium as he blazed his way to gold in the 100, 200 and 4x100 metres relay.

Can he do the same in Stratford, east London?

Or will there be a new pearly king for the adoring masses?

Anticipation suffused with excitement, excellence and no little controversy - the very essence of the Olympics.

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