Brits approach Olympics with dread
To England, it has become the biggest embarrassment.
To the security contractor involved, it is a humiliation it might never live down.
Sure, it’s all true. The company, G4S, was supposed to provide 10,400 trained security personnel for the Olympics, with another 3,000 in waiting. Instead, with athletes already arriving in London and the Games starting in a week, the company is hoping it can rush training and get the number up to 7,000. Even 6,000 might be a push.
So, yes, that is an embarrassing failure. It’s amazing that the government and the International Olympic Committee didn’t discover the problem until it was so close to the Games.
But as someone who plans to pass through several security stations a day, I’d like to ask a favor: Can everyone here, as well as the London media, stop talking about their embarrassment and consider a bigger issue, like, say, whether the lack of security is going to leave the Olympics unsafe? Look, this whole scandal is not about safety here. It’s about saving face.
To the people here, it really isn’t about British security, but instead British insecurity.
You see it everywhere in England. This will be my fifth Olympics, and every one has had a different feel, a different vibe. After having spent a few weeks in England, I was a little surprised by what these Games are shaping up to be.
In Athens, the people were pumped for the big party and for a sense that Greece was being welcomed into Europe and even the world. In Beijing, everyone was courteous – disturbingly so – stopping you on the sidewalk, asking if you wanted directions, saying “Welcome.’’
In London, there seems to be an overwhelming feeling that, as a walking-tour guide of Haunted London said last week, “We’re going to cock this up.’’
That sounds worse than it is. It’s British slang for making a mistake. It isn’t just about the security, either. It’s about the inability for anyone to get tickets. “They all went to corporate and to rich people,’’ said a guy I met on the Tube – subway – to Wimbledon.
It’s about the nonstop rain that has hit all summer. But most of all, it just seems to be a cultural reluctance or pessimism or reserve or fatalism or something.
“Oh, no, we’re excited,’’ said Dan, a young waiter in the town of Bath. “But we’re also well aware of our capacity to mess it up.’’
Come on. You don’t mean that. It’s just a British thing, right?
“Have you seen the previews of the Opening Ceremony?’’ Dan said.
Apparently, some local newspaper has managed to sneak in to see at least part of a rehearsal, he said. They are going to set up a large countryside as part of the show and have sheep on the field and fireworks.
“And the eco-warriors [environmental activists] are upset,’’ Dan said. “They said it's going to scare the sheep.’’
Dan is envisioning chaos, with sheep running all over the place. And it is kind of funny that after the incredible show of beauty and precisely choreographed young people at the Opening Ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, one of the first things the British Games organizers wanted everyone to know was that they weren’t going to go over the top in the same way.
One of the great things about the Olympics is that you get to meet with and get to know people from so many different cultures. As a Chicagoan, I can see a shared culture already between Brits and Cubs fans. After a while, you just expect things to go wrong.
Even at Wimbledon, when Andy Murray was trying to break a Cubs-like slump of Brits winning the championship, thousands of people sat on the hill inside the grounds of the All-England Club and watched on the big screen, fully expecting Murray to blow it.
I asked one woman: Do you believe?
“Yes,’’ she said. “Someone has to.’’
The other day, thousands of people lined up outside Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard. It was pouring. Everyone was waiting. And then several police officers came by and told everyone that they were calling off the usual parade because of the weather.
This is an attitude, a cultural attitude. It doesn’t seem like it, but in some ways, it actually is a form of celebrating your identity. There is a certain pride in being able to stay calm while weathering the storm.
I’ve only given a few examples, by the way. There also was the woman selling food on the train from London to Bath, who said most people weren’t into the Olympics. There was the guy working the McDonald’s in Islington who said he figured if London was involved, they would find a way to botch the Olympics. The woman on the street bench in Bath who noted that there were so many soccer tickets left that they were trying to give them away to schoolchildren.
I was trying to talk to the guy at the front door of my apartment about British basketball and Luol Deng. In the same conversation, I asked if he knew where to buy a basketball and shoot some hoops.
“That won’t be easy,’’ he said. “They don’t play basketball here.’’
Good luck against the Dream Team.
Even The New York Times noted the pessimism, pointing out a Times of London editorial the other day that said this:
“Let’s no longer beat about the bush. This summer’s Olympic Games are going to be a catalog of disasters. Not everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Only lots of it.’’
The Olympic spirit is there, buried underneath a culture. Even Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the evil school headmistress in the hit play “Matilda,’’ had Olympic rings on her shirt as she sang about discipline and forced the kids to do some sort of gymnastics vault.
As for security, the government has decided to send in 3,500 troops to help out. Some people are complaining because manned missiles have been set up on several apartment building rooftops around the city to help fight off terrorist attacks.
It’s a scary world, and the world’s attention will be on London.
However, security always is a major concern at the Games now.
On a flight into the Salt Lake Games, the pilot told everyone to sit down for the final 45 minutes or hour or so and said that if anyone stood, there would be a U.S. fighter jet escorting us in. At the Athens Games, fears were so high about lax security that they shored everything up at the last minute. In fact, the tin foil inside the wrapper of BreathSavers in my pocket were enough to keep setting off the metal detectors.
Of course, in the final few days in Athens, you could walk right through security unchecked, while guards stood by and talked to each other while smoking cigarettes.
It’s going to be interesting to see how London reacts if the Games are a smashing success. But going in, this city might be satisfied to just survive the first day without frightened sheep running everywhere.