Athlete arrivals test transport and security in London


FIRST ARRIVALSLONDON – The first wave of Olympic athletes and visitors began pouring into Britain yesterday as officials played down fears that a packed London would buckle under the pressure of its biggest peacetime security and transport operation.

An embarrassing shortage of security guards, fears over airport queues and questions about London’s creaking transport system have overshadowed preparations for the Games.

Additional soldiers and police were mobilised to help guard the Games after private security firm G4S said it had run out of time to train all its newly-recruited staff.

Less than two weeks before the opening ceremony on July 27th, prime minister David Cameron said the G4S shambles would not compromise Britain’s largest peacetime policing exercise.

Police said personnel from eight forces across Britain had been deployed earlier than planned because of G4S’s failings as part of a force that will peak at 12,500 officers per day on Olympics duty.

The Police Federation condemned G4S, a company it sees taking jobs from its members as forces look to the private sector to compensate for shortages caused by spending cuts.

“What is unacceptable is that the officers I represent have to have their plans changed at such short notice to back-fill for what is a shambles by a private company, G4S, who failed to deliver,” said West Midlands Police Federation chairman Ian Edwards.

Security chiefs said they were prepared for threats on the scale of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Four British Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people on three trains and a bus in London the day after London won the Games in July 2005.

The private guards, police and soldiers are being backed up by fighter aircraft and by missile batteries placed on the top of apartment blocks near the Olympics site in east London.

The International Olympic Committee insisted yesterday that safety levels had not been compromised by the G4S glitch. Heathrow Airport, notorious for passport and security queues, was handling what was to be its busiest day on record, as the Olympic village opened its doors to athletes.

“I was expecting a three-hour queue like everyone said. It took not even five minutes. It was flawless – good job, London,” said John Retsios of the US modern pentathlon team.

Airport operator BAA said it expected a record 237,000 passengers to use Heathrow yesterday, including 335 athletes.

The busiest day for arriving athletes is expected to be July 24th.

The first section of road reserved for Olympic athletes and officials began operating yesterday, when one lane of the motorway linking Heathrow with the western edge of London was closed to all non-Olympic traffic.

It will form part of a 48km network of road lanes designed to whisk 82,000 athletes and officials through London’s notoriously congested streets. Critics have nicknamed them “zil lanes” after the roads reserved for senior officials in the old Soviet Union.

Traffic in central London was down 10 per cent, the city’s transport chief Peter Hendy said, as drivers heeded warnings to avoid the city during the Olympic rush.

Not everything ran to order, however. One member of the US athletics team complained on Twitter that the bus taking him to the Olympic village was lost for four hours en route. “Not a good first impression, London,” Kerron Clement wrote.

But the US Olympics Committee said feedback from American athletes arriving in London had been “fantastic”. “Locog (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) is to be commended for the professionalism in which they have organised these games and one bus trip doesn’t detract from that a bit,” spokesman Patrick Sandusky said. – (Reuters)