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Brits revel in gloom ahead of London Olympics, but don't believe the gripe

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This badge, which was put up for sale on eBay, gives an indication of the attitudes of some Britons ahead of the Olympics.

LONDON -- If grumbling ever becomes an Olympic sport, the United Kingdom has to be a surefire bet for gold.

The level of complaints, fears and general discontent about the 30th Olympiad in London this summer has reached fever pitch, moving well-known commentator David Randall, of The Independent on Sunday newspaper, to write a column entitled "Come on, Britain! Stop moaning! It's the Olympics, for heaven's sake!"


Some fear too many people will come to London, causing a "perfect storm" of congestion on the roads -- so bad that lives could be endangered -- along with congestion on the subways, and also on the Internet; others think that actually fewer visitors than usual will come because ordinary tourists will be put off, so the games will provide little or no boost to the city's economy.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber even predicted "a bloodbath of a summer" for London's theaters after a slump in advance orders for tickets.

Then there has been a slew of gripes about tickets for Olympic events, such as not being able to get them unless you are a member of the super-rich, and unnecessary secrecy about the ticketing process.

Some worry London will get a bad name if visitors are ruthlessly gouged for every cent, by unscrupulous landlords, over-priced hotels or expensive Olympic souvenirs, for example.

The International Olympics Committee President Jacques Rogge said the organization is "happy" with the progress and that a great legacy had already been left. ITV's Rags Martel reports.

 

However, one of the main groups representing London taxis seemed somewhat put out after it tried unsuccessfully to get approval to increase fares by a hefty 22 percent during the games. Allowed only a 5.3 percent raise, a drivers' representative suggested that many cabbies might decide not to show up for work.

Morris-dancing anarchists?
Other complaints include the potential $17 billion cost of the event to taxpayers, and that Scotland, some 500 miles to the north of London, will see little benefit from the presence of the Games in the U.K. capital. 

Labor unions have also been threatening to go on strike during the games to protest the government's austerity measures. 

Darren Staples / Reuters, file

Morris dancers, similar to these Leicester Morrismen dancing in Newtown Linford in 2010, may stage flash mob-style protests after being left out of the opening ceremony, The Daily Mail reported. Morris dancing stretches back some 600 years, but its origins are obscure.

And, if all that wasn't enough, there's the fear of a large-scale terrorist attack, and other assorted threats -- of varying degrees of seriousness -- from solar storms, diseases spread by shaking hands, Morris-dancing anarchists, and, cue the scary music, the "Illuminati."

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Any sports enthusiast looking forward to the spectacles of Usain Bolt on the track, LeBron James on the court and Alex Morgan on the soccer field might be somewhat discouraged by all this negativity.

'It's cathartic'
But Peter Catterall, lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London and editor of the journal National Identities, told msnbc.com that this would be a "cultural misreading" of the current outbreak of moaning.

"I think it reflects, if you like, a national history," he said. "The national narrative is often about making the best of heroic defeat, like [the Second World War evacuation of] Dunkirk and so on. The national experience in Britain is not one that's tended to create a sense in which you can just 'seize that hill.'"

Oda / Getty Images

From Wimbledon to Wembley Stadium to The Dome, a look at the venues for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

"There's a tendency to think in terms of what could go wrong, rather than what could go right," he said. "It's a kind of low-level grumbling amongst people who are often quite good at grumbling. I think also people quite like grumbling, it's cathartic."

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Olympic organizers may even have taken this into account in their planning.

"I do think in part the public authorities have been trying to get the moaning out of the way early," Catterall said, although he added that this "may well put off some visitors."

An age-old attitude?
This kind of attitude may go back at least as far as what was arguably the world's first international event for the masses, London's Great Exhibition of 1851.

It was essentially a trade fair showing off the best products from across the world -- exhibitors included China, Persia (now Iran), the United States, India, Tunisia, Philippines and many European countries -- and it attracted more than 6 million visitors during its five-month run.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Will Brits start celebrating the Games when they actually begin? A man sits in the Atlas cafe in Leyton near the Olympic Park in London, England, on March 22, 2012.

However, in the run-up to the exhibition, Londoners expressed a string of complaints and worries that are notably similar to the current ones about the Olympics.

"I think there was a parallel in terms of all these fears," Michael Leapman, author of a book about the Great Exhibition, called "The World for a Shilling," said.

The prospect of hordes of visitors sparked alarm about congestion -- and as it turned out there were some traffic jams of the horse-and-carriage variety -- and the spread of disease, Leapman told msnbc.com.

And while tickets could be bought for a shilling, prices were increased at the weekends and other times to enable the wealthy to enjoy the exhibits without rubbing shoulders with the "hoi polloi," he added. Leapman said the author Charles Dickens was on a committee to represent the interests of working-class people, but the exhibition's organizers paid so little attention to it that Dickens quit.

Security was another big concern, with the event coming not long after several European revolutions in 1848 and amid unrest associated with the working-class Chartist movement in the U.K.

"The Duke of Wellington [a national hero after his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815] wanted to put a troop of cavalry into Hyde Park, but the government said that would be a bit too provocative," Leapman said.

The government also attempted to set up a register of accommodation with set prices, but Leapman said most landlords resisted signing up, trusting the free market to give a better return.

'Enthusiasm'
But the generally positive outcome of the event gives Leapman, who has tickets to watch hockey, some comfort amid all the present-day moaning.

He said that while there might be "some inconvenience" during the Olympics "I have a feeling it will be a great success, partly judging from the Great Exhibition."

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And so the views of Hugh Robertson, the U.K. government's minister for sport and the Olympics, should perhaps not be viewed with the usual British cynicism toward politicians.

"My experience of the Games across the country has been one of fantastic support and enthusiasm," he told msnbc.com in a statement, noting the "huge demand" for tickets.

"The Royal Wedding showed that Britons know how to get behind national events, and London 2012 will be the chance to do that on a giant scale," Robertson added. "We [are] determined that everybody who comes to London for the Games has an amazing time."

John Powell, chairman of leading athletics club Belgrave Harriers, is exactly the sort of person who should be bursting with enthusiasm for the Games.

He will carry the Olympic torch and is the coach of sprinter James Ellington, who is a medal prospect for the U.K. if he makes it through the trials.

Powell told msnbc.com that he was "very excited" about carrying the flame; and it would be "amazing" to coach an athlete to a medal, the "pinnacle" of his 36 years of coaching.

But even he has a gripe.

If Ellington wins gold, Powell, his coach of some 13 years, will watch his triumph on television because, he said, he and many other coaches will not be given access to the stadium, a decision he described as "shambolic and a scandal."

"That really does take the edge of it from my point of view," Powell said.

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