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