LONDON: Crowds of thousands cheered the Olympic torch relay through London yesterday on the final leg of its tour around Britain, generating excitement that organisers hope will dispel lingering fears about the event’s organisation and security.
The relay, which began in London’s historic maritime district of Greenwich, drew a lively crowd as it passed by the myriad curry houses of east London’s Brick Lane, though the ensuing traffic gridlock underlined the challenges of hosting the Games in one of the world’s busiest cities.
Weeks of rain and logistical problems have prompted a slew of negative headlines in Britain’s famously critical press ahead of the July 27 to Aug. 12 Games, with organisers struggling to recruit enough private security guards, forcing them to look to the army for help. Transport and border staff are also expected to strike soon, causing further headaches.
Still, that failed to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm.
“It might be inconvenient for two weeks, but it’s such an advertisement for Britain, for London. We’re so excited,” said Rebecca Hurley, 46, who was with her husband and two daughters.
Others nearby, however, were far from thrilled, highlighting the cynicism with which some in Britain see the Games.
“I’m really not interested in sport. It’s hyped-up and annoying – two weeks of hell,” said barwoman Sophie Turner, 20.
Her friend said she was worried about bomb attacks.
More British army personnel will be drafted in to secure the games than are currently serving in Afghanistan, partly to make up for the shortfall of security guards.
The Olympic torch arrived in London on Friday after touring scores of British cities, towns and villages, delivered by a Royal Marine Commando who abseiled from a helicopter into the Tower of London, one of the capital’s main tourist attractions.
In the coming days, the torch will be carried around London’s religious, political and royal landmarks, culminating in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron in east London.
“As it sprints through the city, I know that its radiance will dispel any last remaining clouds of dampness and anxiety … and it will spread the crackling bush fire of Olympic enthusiasm throughout the city,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told reporters, referring to the torch.
Focus on athletes
Foreign media covering the run-up to the Games have poked fun at what they say is the British tendency to whinge, with an article in the New York Times listing Londoners’ favourite sports as “complaining, expecting the worst and cursing the authorities”.
But while organisational difficulties in hosting the Games may have dominated the domestic headlines in recent weeks, attention is now increasingly turning to the athletes and the political backdrop of the countries they represent.
In Britain, pressure is mounting for its athletes to beat or at least maintain the fourth place they achieved on the medal table at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
“This will be the most competitive Olympic Games in history and we don’t take for granted for one moment that this will be easy,” Andy Hunt, chief executive of the British Olympic Association and chef de mission of Team GB, told reporters.
African neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia, giants of middle and long distance running, will renew their long tussle for dominance of the running track.
Isolated, impoverished North Korea will face the United States, with which it is technically still at war, on the soccer field when their women’s teams face each other on July 31.
On Saturday, Turkey said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will travel to London as part of his country’s team to push for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Istanbul.
Athletes began arriving in London last weekend, and on Saturday Libya’s delegation to the Games left Tripoli for the British capital, hopeful that the committee’s president, taken from his car by gunmen last week, would join them.
The threat of transport delays looms over the event, with border officials planning to go on strike on July 26 and train drivers in central England set to walk out from Aug. 6-8.
London’s “Tube”, a 19th century creation that is the oldest underground railway network in the world, sometimes struggles to cope with the millions of commuters it transports today.
Misgivings over heavy-handed enforcement of copyright on Olympic branding have also marred the run-up, amid reports of vendors being banned from displaying Olympic rings in shop windows or selling types of fast food sold by Olympic sponsors.
Michael Payne, a former Olympic marketing director credited with reeling in sponsors such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, told Britain’s Independent newspaper that the Olympic authorities’ policing of the sponsorship deals had “gone too far”.
Still, there are signs that the negative headlines may give way to more positive ones as the Games near.
An Ipsos MORI poll on Friday found that 71 percent of Britons believe the Olympics will boost the public mood and that 61 percent think hosting the Games will boost Britain’s image abroad.