London 2012 bringing in more military?
Pedestrians wearing raingear walk around the Olympic Park in Stratford, the location of the London 2012 Olympic Games, in east London July 18, 2012. (REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)
LONDON - Britain may have to call up yet more soldiers to police the Olympic Games, the government said on Wednesday, after a failed private sector recruitment drive left an embarrassing hole in security and dashed London’s dreams of a spotless showcase.
The security fiasco and doubts over the ability of London’s strained transport system to handle a swarm of visitors have overshadowed an event which the government still hopes will give recession-hit Britain something to celebrate.
The omens did not look good as athletes from across the world poured into London this week, some tweeting frustration with transport delays amidst a media storm over security fears.
And, after months of rain and flood, the Games have already earned the nickname of the Soggy Olympics in the British press.
“There are challenges and the military have stepped up to the plate and I salute them for it,” Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters during a visit to Afghanistan. “Let’s not call it a soggy Olympics, let’s call it a great Olympics.”
The glitch came after security firm G4S said it could not deliver a promised 10,400 security guards to watch over the venues, exposing the government to accusations of poor planning.
To fill the gap, the defence ministry called up an extra 3,500 troops - many just back from serving in Afghanistan where Cameron was on a visit on Wednesday - to take the armed forces contribution to 17,000 personnel.
“Let’s be clear, if G4S don’t fulfil their contract we will go after them for the money to make sure that they help pay for the military personnel that have been brought in,” Cameron said.
HORSES, COWS, GOATS AND CHICKENS
The latest victim of London’s roads and rail network was the Olympic opening ceremony which has been trimmed to avoid a possible late-night stampede for trains and buses home, officials and media reports said.
A daredevil stunt bike performance was cancelled following rehearsals, with some reports suggesting the event was removed over fears that security checkpoints would be unable to cope with a rush of more than 60,000 spectators.
Due to be watched by a global television audience of a billion people, the July 27 extravaganza will attempt to recreate scenes from Britain’s idyllic countryside and includes a cast of 10,000 performers, 12 horses, three cows, two goats and 10 chickens.
“We need to make sure the show comes in on time, to make sure spectators can get home on public transport,” a spokesman for London 2012 said.
But officials at the stadium itself denied any link to security and transport fears.
“This is like any other piece of film that you would make,” said Jackie Brock-Doyle, director of communications for Games organisers LOCOG.
“Things end up on the cutting room floor. Also, a huge amount of the rehearsals have been done in the pouring rain so it is a matter of tightening. It’s not cutting big chunks.
Britain is keen to soothe security fears in a city where suicide bombers killed 52 people in bombings on the public transport system the day after London was awarded the Games, in July 2005.
More troops could be deployed to control crowds at the Games if G4S struggles to find a minimum requirement of 7,000 staff. An extra 2,000 troops may be needed.
On Tuesday, G4S Chief Executive Nick Buckles suffered an excruciating grilling by irate lawmakers, agreeing with one during a parliamentary hearing that the failure to recruit enough guards had left the firm’s reputation ”in tatters“.
Hugh Robertson, the minister responsible for the Olympics, said contingency plans were being drawn up for the extra troops, saying the government would ”not spend a penny more“ for the extra security to make up for G4S’s failings.
London’s network of underground routes and narrow, cluttered roads is under strain from commuters, tourists and shoppers at the best of times, but now it must cope with an unprecedented burden in the coming weeks.
In a piece of positive news for organisers, Britain’s official statisticians said on Wednesday the Olympics had given a much-needed jobs boost to the economy. They did not specify if that increase came from the security sector.
However, the Olympics feel-good factor has yet to be felt by many in Britain, according to an Adecco poll which showed excitement had fallen one point to three out of 10 this week.
Some events have failed to attract expected interest. Half a million tickets for Olympic soccer matches were withdrawn and stadium capacities reduced this week due to a lack of demand.
The transport teething problems have also contributed to a difficult last week before the Games.
Taxi drivers, renowned for their territorial attitude towards the streets of London, brought traffic outside parliament to a standstill on Tuesday in protest at their exclusion from the Olympic traffic lanes.
Some relief for the organisers came after London bus workers accepted an offer of an Olympic bonus, ending the threat of a strike that could have paralysed London next week.