London set for the big day

Olympic atmosphere. The St. Paul's Cathedral is seen in the distance as the Olympic rings hang from the Tower Bridge in London.-AP

Conscious of the comparisons that will be made with the spectacular 2008 Beijing Games, the organisers of the London Olympics are pulling out all stops to make it a success. By Hasan Suroor.

First, a word of warning to those planning to come to London for the Olympics: be prepared for a long, sweaty wait on arrival at Heathrow airport as an acute staff shortage, caused by the government’s austerity measures, means that visitors are greeted by long rows of empty immigration desks with queues stretching almost to the tarmac.

The chaos is likely to get worse as the Olympics rush begins. Although the Government has promised to take “remedial’’ measures, keep your fingers crossed. But on a more cheerful note, the scene is set for London’s Big Party — its third Olympics (previous ones were in 1908, and 1948), and the most ambitious.

Conscious of the comparisons that will inevitably be made with the spectacular 2008 Beijing Games, the organisers — the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) — are pulling out all stops to make it a success.

The Government alone has coughed up some £10 billion despite a deep economic crisis with another £2 billion coming from the private sector through sponsorship deals, ticket sales and broadcasting rights.

Preparations have been marred by protests over Dow Chemical’s £7 million sponsorship of the Games because of its links with the Bhopal gas tragedy.

More protests are planned during the Games, but organisers insist that they don’t expect any disruption.

Australian street artist James Cochran spray paints a portrait of Usain Bolt, Jamaica's world record holder in the 100- and 200-metre sprints, on the wall of a building beside a car park in east London. The east London neighbourhood, for long neglected, has received a huge leg-up, thanks to the Olympics.-AP

A bigger concern is security prompting the army to deploy air defence missiles at as many as six locations in and around London as part of a “comprehensive multilayered air security plan’’ despite opposition from residents who say that setting up missiles on housing estates make them feel more insecure.

The shadow of terror has hung over the Games since the day London won the bid on July 6, 2005 to host them. Within hours of the announcement as Londoners were still celebrating, terrorists struck with an attack on the London Underground killing more than 50 people in the worst post-9/11 terror atrocity in Europe. Memories of the July 7, 2005 bombing are still fresh.

No wonder, police are taking no chances and have mounted one of the most elaborate security operations London has seen in years virtually locking down East London, home to the Olympics stadium and village. Several people, living in the proximity of the Olympics site, have been arrested in what has been dubbed the “pre-Olympics nerves.’’

“To visit the Olympics Park… is to be confronted by a mind-boggling number of British soldiers, either manning the entrances, patrolling the borders, or being bussed around to combat hotspots unknown. It’s what you call a great ‘look’,’’ a Guardian columnist wrote with a touch of sarcasm.

As London prepares for the big day, with the Olympics countdown clock at Trafalgar Square ticking away furiously, and the organisers crank up the hype, it is hard to escape the Games fever. The Mayor, Boris Johnson, is personally leading the propaganda blitz portraying the Games as his and his Conservative Party’s legacy though it was the erstwhile Labour Government that was instrumental in bringing the Olympics to London dramatically snatching victory from the jaws of a formidable array of rivals — Madrid, Moscow, New York City and Paris.

Traditional Anglo-French rivalry made London’s victory over Paris smell even sweeter.

London mayor Boris Johnson looks at a pamphlet whilst posing for photographers at the window of a new information "pod" set up to help Olympic visitors with information. Young ambassadors will be stationed at 43 pods across the capital and will provide a welcoming face of London during the Olympics.-AP

London has had a facelift with its old, groaning infrastructure — roads, train stations, flyovers — upgraded to Olympics standards.

The part of east London, Stratford, where the Games are being held, used to be one of the city’s most neglected areas: today, that’s where all the action is. Millions of pounds have been invested in its redevelopment.

The Stratford railway station, designated as the “gateway’’ to the Games, has been transformed into one of London’s most modern train terminals.

Visitors to the Games will be walking through a spanking new shopping mall, Westfield, billed as Europe’s “largest urban shopping and leisure destination’’ with state-of-the-art cinema halls, casinos and bars and restaurants. Property prices in the once-depressed area are booming much to the envy of London’s more fashionable addresses. The regeneration of East London is billed as the Games’ biggest legacy.

The media is awash with stories of “British pride’’ and show of national unity as the Olympics flame travels around the country with people of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds taking turns to run with it as it heads for London. A report in The Times, headed “Nationality? We’re all British now,’’ claimed how Britain was “brimming’’ with a “sense of civic pride.’’

Forget pride, there is a lot of money at stake. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that his government’s mission is to “turn these Games into gold for Britain’’ with the British economy slated to get a £13bn boost over the next four years.

The Games are being aggressively marketed through money-spinning merchandise, including Olympics t- shirts, caps, mugs, beer mats, towels, and an array of toys; and a series of cultural events under the umbrella of Cultural Olympiad claimed to be “the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic movements’’.

It includes a festival of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 world languages ; and a music concert featuring Elton John and the 1980s heartthrobs Duran Duran.

For all the official and media hype, there is a distinct lack of public interest. People are worried about the Olympics’ “disruptive’’ effect on normal life and many are talking of taking a holiday during the Games to avoid the “blues’’.

Organisers, however, insist that come the Big Day (July 27) the mood will change with people getting into the swing of things. One billion people around the world are expected to watch the £27 million opening ceremony directed by Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning film-maker of Slumdog Millionaire fame.

Inspired by Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, the show will tell the story of a nation “recovering from its industrial legacy.’’

Over to Mr. Boyle.