British soldiers swap Afghanistan for Olympic duty

More used to patrolling the battlefields of Afghanistan than

checking Olympic accreditations, smiling British troops fanned out

across London’s Olympic Park on Tuesday to fill the void left by a

private contractor’s failure to provide enough guards.

Unarmed but in combat uniforms, soldiers with suntans acquired

far from cloudy London were getting accustomed to their temporary

theater of action, a former industrial wasteland transformed into

Olympic venues and accommodation.

With ”London 2012” badges starting to join regimental insignia

on uniforms, soldiers swapped machine guns for barcode zappers as

they manned airport-style checkpoints to the park.Several said they

had recently served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Far from instilling fear into arriving athletes, the army

personnel seemed to provide a comforting presence in a city that

was hit by a wave of deadly suicide bombings the day after being

awarded the Olympics in 2005.

”I think they do give people enormous reassurance that security

is being carried out correctly,” Olympics minister Hugh Robertson

told The Associated Press. ”Talking to athletes, who might have

come here and been a little bit alarmed by this, they are

incredibly reassured to see the armed forces on the gate.

”They know that is the best we’ve got … and enable us to

deliver a safe and secure games.”

Britain’s terrorist threat risk remains at substantial, the

middle point on a five-point scale, meaning an attack is a strong

possibility.

”There is no intelligence at the moment that suggests the alert

will be raised,” Robertson said.

And, Robertson believes replacing private contractors with

battlefield veterans could mean a safer games when they begin July

27.

”I’ve always felt this,” Robertson said. ”I was always very

keen right from the beginning to have the armed forces up front and

central in any security plans … I’m absolutely confident that

they will play their part alongside our police, alongside private

security guards, alongside volunteers.”

People arriving at the Olympic Park on Tuesday were not alarmed

by troops manning the security checkpoints.

”It’s fine and I don’t feel uncomfortable,” Chinese television

production worker Ziqiang Zhang said. ”They are good, very

professional … but in China they had more (at the Beijing

Games).”

It’s only in the last two weeks that the government has had to

call in 3,500 extra soldiers and police to fill the gap left by

security firm G4S’s failure to recruit enough staff.

But this is one security shambles inspiring more confidence in

the security operation, with 17,000 troops protecting the Olympics

nationally.

”We are in a lot better hands with our military looking after

security than the people that were only going to be trained up in a

few months,” five-time Olympic rowing champion Steve Redgrave told

British broadcaster ITV. ”It may seem a big issue but the reality

is our spectators and our athletes are going to be in a much safer

situation than they were before.”

Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris