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London Calling: Some locals still grumbling but others getting into the spirit

07/26/2012 12:33 EDT | Updated 09/25/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Dodgy traffic. Commuter complaints. Cost concerns.

The pre-Games bellyaching in London evokes memories of the teeth-gnashing in Vancouver prior to the Winter Games. But the tide turned in 2010 once the competition started and Canada eventually began to win medals.

It's likely Team Great Britain will do well out of the gate. Here's betting a Vancouver-like made-in-Britain love-in spreads like wildfire once the cauldron is lit and locals climb the podium.

For Olympic veterans like Canadian speedskater/cyclist Clara Hughes, the pre-Games hand-wringing in the host country is getting old.

"It's the same every Games," said Hughes, who is at her seventh Olympics, including one on the media side.

"Doom, gloom and everyone doesn't want the Olympics in their backyards and the moment they start, it changes. So I find it amusing. ... I just hope nothing happens, that anybody gets hurt, and then the Games can unfold in a beautiful way like they always do."

On the eve of the Games, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a spirited pep talk, playing up the legacy of the Games just as Vancouver organizers did time and time again.

"Look behind me at this extraordinary Olympic Park," he said at a news conference Thursday with the Olympic Stadium as a backdrop. "Built from nothing in seven years."

The aquatic centre alone will be used by 800,000 people a year after the Games, Cameron said.

The PM needs good news in the wake of bad news that the British economy shrank more than expected in the second quarter.

"Economy in worst recession for half a century," the Times of London said Thursday.

Spending in excess of nine billion pounds (C$14.2 billion) on the Games — the Guardian newspaper says it has identified spending of around 11 billion pounds (C$17.4 billion) — has some locals shaking their heads.

"With the current economic situation, people are thinking would that money be better spent doing something else?" said Ian Bayes, who lives in Higham Ferrers.

"Nine billion pounds and counting. I've heard other estimates because of overspending and cock-up on security, it'll be more like 14 to 15 billion. So for the duration of the Olympics, notwithstanding the Paralympics, that equates to around a billion pounds a day it's costing the U.K."

Bayes is skeptical of government claims that the Games will be good for the country's economy.

"They've got no justification for saying it because they don't know. . . . But I think when it's all accounted, audited and looked at, then there will be recriminations."

There is bang for the buck, though. The Olympics can serve as a giant advertisement for the host country and Cameron is already hard at work beating the drum.

"All of this goes to show what we can achieve as a country," the PM said in delivering an Olympic-sized pat on the back for Britain. "And it sends out this powerful message to the world. If you're looking for a great place to do business, to invest, to work, to study, to visit, look no further than the United Kingdom."

The branding exercise starts Friday with Cameron estimating four billion will be watching the opening ceremonies.

What will be the message projected around the globe, he was asked. Beefeaters or Blur?

"Well it's both," said Cameron, who promised some spine-tingling moments.

On Thursday, music from such British icons as the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Queen and the Sex Pistols could be heard coming out of the Olympic Stadium.

The weather has been the least of organizers' problems so far, with London baking under bright sun. It makes for good photos but for those taking the Underground, however, it's been akin to tunnelling through molten rock.

The Brits have made some bold moves ahead of the opening ceremonies to showcase the Games.

Giant images of the Union Jack, Olympic rings and sprinter Usain Bolt and other athletes were projected at night on the side of the parliament buildings.

And it's hard to miss the supersized rings hanging off Tower Bridge. British media reported the rings, which weigh three tonnes each, cost 259,817 pounds (C$411,686) to produce and 53,000 pounds(C$84,000) to install.

Still, the Games seem slow to take hold in London.

Most of the references to the Games around town are to be found on official sponsor advertisements, from McDonald's to British Telecom.

British newspapers are also finding other stories to write about.

The Sun tabloid, while promoting in a small box on the cover its Olympic pullout section, splashed on Page 1 the story of plucky 11-year-old Liam Corcoran-Fort, who managed to fly to Rome without a passport or ticket.

The Daily Mirror mentioned Team Great Britain's win in women's soccer but most of the front page was devoted to the British economy troubles and the relationship between "Twilight" stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.

There was bad news on the Olympic front Wednesday when the North Korean women's soccer team walked off the pitch after the South Korean flag was shown in error during player introductions on the video screen at Glasgow's Hamden Park. The North Koreans returned an hour later to defeat Colombia.

Cameron called it "an honest mistake" and noted an apology had been given.

"We shouldn't over-inflate this episode. It was unfortunate, it shouldn't have happened, and I think we can leave it at that."

But there are also good-news stories yet to be told.

Take Thai teenager Ratchanok Intanon, who was introduced to badminton when her father found a way to get her into the badminton club where he worked as a low-paid labourer. Intanon made her international debut at 14 and, three years later, is seeded ninth at the London Games.

And how can you not get into an event that features athletes in all shapes and sizes from 66-pound Japanese gymnast Asuka Teramoto to 481-pound Guam judoka Ricardo Blas Jr.

But it's the traffic congestion that has been the biggest bone of contentions for the locals.

"We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active bustling cities anywhere in the world," noted Cameron. "Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere."

Driving in London at the best of times is demanding. Restricting lanes to the Olympic family from 6 a.m. to midnight doesn't help your average Joe and signs that simply say "avoid driving" during the Games just rub salt in the wound.

"Basically the authorities are saying to people that commute into London like I do, if possible, don't use the public transport," said Bayes, who commutes 95 kilometres each way to London. "Walk, get a bike or have two weeks holiday."

There's a website to help locals get around the traffic issues — www.getaheadofthegames.com/ — but the bottom line is people still have to do what they have to do during the Games.

"It's pretty unbearable," London resident Ross Haig said. "Taxi drivers are getting diverted around, it changes week to week. It's very difficult to get anywhere. I'm leaving half an hour to spare here and there to try and get (somewhere that's) five minutes away. It's pretty bad."

Cameron came off as the voice of reason Thursday.

"We have to say this is an extraordinary few weeks for London. We can't say to people life is going to be completely as normal. It isn't .... And I think people have to be prepared for some difficulties as a result of that but so far flexibility, good sense has been shown backing up the investment that's gone in (transportation)."

Haig, for one, is managing to see the glass half-full.

"I think people are generally getting on board now that it's finally here," he said.

They take their traffic violations seriously here. In June, an MBA student at the University of Wales was forced to abandon his car outside the parliament building when the brakes failed. He left the car with a note on the windshield but that did not satisfy security forces, who used a "controlled explosion" to open the trunk of his Ford Mondeo.

And for good measure, the student got a ticket for illegal parking.

The British military have been front and centre at the Games after stepping in to save the day to provide security at Olympic venues in the wake of the failure of private security contractors to meet commitments. And judging from early interactions, British soldiers could greet the enemy to death in case of invasion. They have been unfailingly polite.

Just in time, Haig is putting on a good face as well.

"We complain about everything but I think we're getting into the spirit now."

— With files from Canadian Press reporters Robert Laflamme and Gregory Strong in London.

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