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Troops everywhere, long lines and moans: A very British Olympic Games

Luke Macgregor / Reuters

Soldiers man a security checkpoint at an entrance to the London 2012 Olympic Park at Stratford in London on July 12, 2012.

LONDON — The military has been drafted to plug a security gap, the road surface along a key arrival route is cracking up and London Heathrow International Airport is expecting long lines. Only 14 days before the Olympics, are the wheels coming off London's Games planning or are Britons just finding excuses to grumble?

It has not been an encouraging week for organizers, or for London's 7.5 million residents. A crowd control rehearsal at main stations during Tuesday's morning commute caused frayed tempers and led to predictions that the city's creaking transport infrastructure may not be able to cope.


@Shoutsatcows on Twitter

A sign in the London Olympic Park, posted to Twitter, explaining that French fries cannot be served -- except to those ordering traditional British fish and chips together.

Then NBC News broke the news on Wednesday that Britain's military will have to come up with 3,500 bodies to fill a shortfall in security personnel because private contractor G4S admitted it might not meet its agreed targets to supply workers.

Competing athletes, due to arrive from all corners of the world on Monday, were warned on Thursday that the M4 motorway link that was supposed to whisk them from Heathrow to their hotels and training bases may still be closed after cracks were discovered in a concrete viaduct. Meanwhile, delays at airport immigration recently were so bad that passengers began slow-clapping in protest.

And anyone at the Olympic site trying to cheer themselves up with a snack might also be disappointed. Under the multi-million dollar International Olympic Committee sponsorship deals, chips — as fries are known in the U.K. — are banned at the site unless they come from McDonald's, or if they are served as part of a traditional British fish and chips meal. A sign in the workers' cafeteria, posted on Twitter, struck a note of disappointment.

The military, currently undergoing a painful round of layoffs and cost-cutting, is far from pleased at mopping up the failings of a private contractor. Retired Colonel Richard Kemp, a former UK commander in Afghanistan, told the BBC on Thursday:

“Many of the soldiers that are coming — this extra 3,500 — I understand are soldiers who have just returned from Afghanistan. As always when you give any part of the armed forces a task they will do it extremely well, extremely professionally and with a smile on their face… but we shouldn't forget also that many of these soldiers are people who have been told in the last few days that they are going to be made redundant, that their regiments are being scrapped and they are under great pressure already. The wider morale in the armed forces now is very fragile and this will simply add to that fragility.”

Britain's Home Secretary, Theresa May, has offered free Olympic tickets to the extra soldiers to compensate them for having their leave canceled. 

Summoned to parliament on Thursday to explain the security shortfall, May denied claims by opposition lawmakers that Games preparations were "a shambles." She also dismissed concerns that the presence of up to 11,000 soldiers at Games venues — more than the 9,500 troops Britain currently has deployed in Afghanistan — would make visitors feel uncomfortable.

London is on high military alert as the Olympics approaches, with the Navy's largest ship poised to defend the capital, helicopters, marine commandos and even surface-to-air missiles placed in six areas around the city. NBC's Tazeen Ahmad reports.

London Mayor Boris Johnson went a step farther, saying the military presence "adds to the tone of the occasion."

But the tone of the Games is precisely what is raising concern in some quarters. Early evidence from the main Olympic Park suggests the often-officious character of British event organization could be a serious irritant: Identity passes and access credentials are zealously scrutinized at every turn by guards brandishing official buttons and lanyards, but maps or signs have yet to be installed at the vast site.

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

The Spectator

The cover of the July 14 issue of weekly conservative magazine, The Spectator.

Many local parks, stations and access roads have already been shut down two weeks before the Games, effectively extending the inconveniences associated with airports to the entire city. Conservative commentator Charles Moore, writing in a special issue of The Spectator magazine, took particular exception to the mantra of officialdom, 'for security reasons,' calling it "the great tyrant's excuse of our times."

Strict enforcement of Olympic branding rules and sponsorship clauses has also come under criticism. Pierre Williams, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, castigated LOCOG (the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) for "petty officiousness" and for having been "absurdly over-protective" of its corporate sponsors, according to a report in the Financial Times. "In its almost paranoid attempts to protect the Olympic brand and its corporate sponsors, it has largely destroyed the goodwill that was there for the taking from businesses supplying the games," he said.

Onlookers taking pictures at the 'O2' music arena have reported being hassled by security staff because the site will shortly become an Olympic venue for basketball and thus off-limits for photography. (It can't be called the 'O2' either, because it is named after a non-Olympic commercial sponsor: It will be known during the games as 'North Greenwich Arena 1'.)

However, these alone are not indications that the Olympics will be a disaster. It seems unlikely that a city that has learned to live with crush-loaded Tube trains and has spent decades under the threat of terror — first from the IRA, which used explosives and bomb warnings to disrupt London's public transport for a generation, and then from Islamic militants — could not cope with two weeks of similar inconvenience.

Just two weeks away from the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the British government has announced thousands of additional soldiers will be sent to provide security at Game venues.

Complaints are to be expected, especially in a country where moaning might be regarded as an Olympic event in its own right.

"I hope, and expect, it will be a success," said author and transport expert Christian Wolmar. "I am optimistic that the transport system will cope just fine. If anything goes wrong at the Olympics it will be overzealous and dumb security, not public transport."

There has been one small victory for the common man: McDonald's on Thursday said it had relaxed its position on French fries in a deal with LOCOG that allows workers to be served individual portions of fries at other restaurants on the main Games site.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign came on Thursday afternoon, when transit authority Transport for London asked for volunteers to rehearse waiting in line and "simulate the unloading of a crush Central line car" to test crowd control measures. "How much fun does that sound like to you?" asked David Hill of The Guardian

You may think the last thing the British needed to practice was waiting in line or putting up with crowded trains, but it seems no detail is being left to chance at the 2012 Olympics. There was no shortage of unpaid volunteers, and the event was reportedly a success. Maybe things will run just fine after all.

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