Britain awash in gloom as London Olympics approach

With less than five months until the games begin, England’s mood

is about as gray and gloomy as a rainy day along the River

Thames.

Instead of enthusiasm, euphoria and ebullience, the Olympic

countdown is generating a drumbeat of skepticism, scare stories and

doom.

There are persistent complaints about the ticketing, worries

over cost overruns, predictions of traffic gridlock and

transportation chaos, threats of blood shortages, disease and

strikes – even talk of drought.

British oddsmakers are even taking bets on everything that could

go wrong.

The Olympic flame will fail to arrive on time for the July 27

opening? That’s 66-1 at Ladbrokes.

An athlete will miss the start of competition and cite transport

problems as the reason? That’s 2-1.

A power cut at the opening ceremony? That’s 25-1.

Britons have a reputation as natural-born grumblers who love

nothing more than to complain, and the Olympics have proved to be a

perfect outlet for naysayers and killjoys.

”This is very typical of the British mentality,” said Ellis

Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire

University. ”There is a quite healthy recognition of our own

limitations. There is a tradition in Britain to think, `Well, we

really don’t do things that well, you know. If anyone can screw it

up, the British can.”’

Many Londoners plan to leave town to avoid the whole thing,

especially when they can cash in by renting out their homes or

apartments for the Olympics.

”It’s going to be difficult getting in and out of the city

center during the games,” said Jason Hammond, a 45-year-old

company director who lives in northwest London with his wife and

five children. ”It’s too much of a hassle. So we’ve booked a

holiday and put our house up for rent for 12,000 pounds ($19,000) a

week, four times the normal price.”

Also feeling in a sour mood and planning to leave town during

the Olympics is Andrew Doughty, 41, who lives with his wife and two

young children in the north London borough of Islington – a short

train ride from the Olympic Park. He applied for tickets for his

family and came up empty-handed.

”Now we feel really disconnected,” Doughty said. ”Everything

for us is now just a major inconvenience. It’s all downside now

being in London. The place is going to be overrun. The Tube system

is going to be swamped. I’d rather watch it on TV on holiday

somewhere.”

Certainly, every host city goes through ups and downs during the

seven-year buildup to the Olympics – the euphoria after winning the

bid, the reality check of the massive task at hand, the doubts and

worries in the final stretch and the burst of enthusiasm once the

Olympic flame arrives for the torch relay. But with Britain, that

doubt-and-worry phase seems to be lasting and is more

pronounced.

”It’s like before a big game,” senior Canadian IOC member Dick

Pound said. ”You suddenly say, `Are we properly prepared? Are we

going to blow this? Are we going to be the laughingstocks of the

world?’ That’s perfectly natural. All you have to do is make sure

it doesn’t paralyze you.”

Once the games get under way, and assuming there are no serious

problems, Britain is sure to get caught up in the party

atmosphere.

But, for the moment, the mood is muted.

”People are pretty cynical,” said John Armitt, chairman of the

Olympic Delivery Authority, which is responsible for building the

venues. ”We’re very good at seeing the downside of the things,

arguing about it and debating it. I put it down to the natural

British character, I’m afraid.”

London has its share of serious challenges, particularly over

transportation and security. Can the city’s already-stretched Tube

and rail network handle the Olympic crush? Will the games be safe

from terrorism or other disruption?

Those have been the main concerns since London was awarded the

Olympics in 2005. Lately, the flashpoint has been tickets, or the

perceived lack of clarity and fairness in the sales process.

Demand for the 6.6 million tickets has been huge. Early rounds

of sales were marred by computer problems and confusion over why

some people got tickets and others didn’t. The media and the public

have been sharply critical of how it’s been handled.

Things turned hostile this week when organizing committee

leaders Sebastian Coe and Paul Deighton faced heated questioning by

the London Assembly.

Committee chair Dee Doocey accused Coe of being ”obsessed with

secrecy” and lashed out: ”You are the least transparent

organization I have ever come across in the eight years I have been

on at the London Assembly!”

At the heart of the malaise is a lingering concern about the

cost of the games during a time of economic austerity. The public

sector budget stands at 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion), much of

which has gone to building the Olympic Park in east London.

On Friday, a British government oversight committee warned the

games could go over budget because of big increases in security

costs, which now exceed 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion).

”It is staggering that the original estimates were so wrong,”

committee chair Margaret Hodge said.

Cashmore said there has been ”a dramatic shift over the last

couple of months.”

”Everyone’s enthusiasm has been tempered suddenly with a kind

of a jolt,” he said. ”On top of that, every story we get in the

media about the Olympics is not about how fabulous the spectacle is

going to be.”

Recent stories of foreboding during the Olympics have

included:

– Patients will be stranded in ambulances in traffic jams while

dignitaries and sponsors flash by in limos in special lanes.

Delivery of blood supplies will be impeded by traffic

restrictions.

– Supplies of anthrax and smallpox vaccines are running short

and need to be stockpiled to guard against a biological attack.

– London faces a potential public health emergency because of

diseases brought in by thousands of visitors and athletes. (This

took a new twist when Britain’s Olympic team doctor advised

athletes not to shake hands to avoid picking up germs – a

suggestion that officials later said would be disregarded.)

– Water supplies could be at risk after southeast England was

officially declared a drought zone – a contrast from the

traditional worry that the games will be soaked by rain.

– Some of London’s West End theaters could be shut down because

of a lack of ticket bookings.

As far as the international guardians of the Olympics are

concerned, there is nothing to panic about.

Pound, the International Olympic Committee member from Canada,

attributes the mood in part to the British media.

”That happens when you have four daily papers in a single

town,” he said.

IOC vice president Thomas Bach of Germany said he’s seen it all

before.

”In Barcelona, the stadia were supposedly not ready,” he said.

”In Los Angeles, everybody was supposed to be a victim of crime.

In Sydney, there was a crisis. You name it, any games. It’s

everywhere. There are normal ups and downs.

”We will see and live brilliant games in London. I’m absolutely

confident.”

Until then? Dour Britons will just frown and bear it.

Associated Press Writer Danica Kirka contributed to this

report.

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