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Global press review: London Olympics open amidst concern over missiles, traffic and costs

| July 27, 2012

The world's eyes are on London, host of the 2012 Summer Olympics. The hosting rights, won under Tony Blair's government slightly more than 7 years ago, are not viewed as enthusiastically by Londoners anymore. It will be anything short of a miracle for the games to proceed without a hitch.

London's international airport, Heathrow, runs at near full capacity most of the year and will be running over capacity when the athletes and spectators begin arriving from everywhere corner of the globe. And it is guaranteed that the London Underground will also be running over capacity. But these are problems that cannot easily be alleviated. Expansion costs to any public transport system or major aviation hubs cost billions of dollars.

However, the siege-like atmosphere that has arisen as a result of security concerns put a damper on the Olympic spirit. Already present in London, or on their way in, are over 3,700 British soldiers. Half that number are on duty in Afghanistan. Surface to air missile installations sit on the rooftops of apartment buildings and a helicopter carrier is anchored in the Thames. Not really a fitting atmosphere for an event that is supposed to promote peace.

Despite the heightened security, the Globe and Mail reported that an 11-year old was still able to board a flight from Manchester to Rome on July 25 without any passport or boarding pass. Airport officials called it a security breach and said several security staff at the airport had been suspended for the security slip.

The 11-year-old boy didn't have a passport, didn't have a ticket, didn't have a boarding pass, and got all the way from England to Italy on his own.

For him, the 1,700-kilometer journey was a great adventure -- and his excitement led to his discovery. “He was chatting away about being off by himself,” and passengers alerted the cabin crew, Russell Craig, a spokesman for Manchester Airport, said Wednesday.

For the airport, airline Jet2.com and the British government, Tuesday's incident was an embarrassing breach of security days before the start of the Olympics.

Ben Vogel, editor of HIS Jane's Airport Review, said he wasn't familiar with all the details of the Manchester incident but said it's a fundamental security principle that people aren't allowed aboard an aircraft if they have no right to be there -- whether or not they passed through a security scanner. “It's not good, is it?” he said. “It is a security breach, if a non-threatening security breach.”

The Olympics have also been groundbreaking for Olympic teams for a few Arab countries who are fielding female athletes for the first time. But that does not mean their attire will be determined by the country they represent. In an Associated Press story, the International Judo Federation ruled that a Saudi athlete will not be allowed to wear a headscarf while competing.

The International Judo Federation says one of Saudi Arabia's first female athletes selected for the Olympics will not be allowed to wear a headscarf during competition. Federation president Marius Vizer announced Thursday that Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani could not fight with a headscarf, saying the move was “according to the principles and spirit of judo.”

IJF spokesman Nicolas Messner said it was also due to safety concerns. “In judo we use strangleholds and chokeholds so the hijab could be dangerous,” Messner said. The Japanese martial art does not recognize differences in things like politics or religion and judges competitors only on their level of judo, Messner said.

Asian judo federations have previously allowed Muslim women to wear the hijab during major competitions, but Messner said the IJF had decided against it. “The only difference between competitors should be their level of judo,” he said, explaining that the grappling and throwing sport aims to be nonpolitical.

The ruling could jeopardize Shahrkhani's participation in the Olympics. Saudi leaders only agreed to send women to the games for the first time on the condition they be allowed to wear appropriate clothing for Muslim women, including a headscarf.

Shahrkhani was given a special invitation from the International Olympic Committee to compete in London. She has never fought at the international level before and has mostly been coached by her father, a judo referee. Sarah Attar, Saudi Arabia's other female Olympic athlete, is expected wear a headscarf when she competes in distance running.

German weekly Der Spiegel wrote about the lack of room London's organizers have for making mistakes. The city is heavily congested on a good day and there will be no good days as London deals with an additional one million bodies each day the Olympics takes place.

It's never easy to be a Londoner, not even on a perfectly normal workday in an English summer.

The Economist claims that London "had the best infrastructure in the world" 100 years ago.

But, today, the city is already being pushed to its limits on a daily basis. And now this major city is about to host the world's most challenging major spectacle, the Olympics, for the third time, after hosting it in 1908 and 1948.

This time around, it's already clear that the London Olympics, which will run from July 27 to August 12, will be an arduous obstacle course for everyone.

Starting this week, the world's biggest financial center will be gripped by a special condition usually only seen in wartime. Its 7.8 million inhabitants are about to be joined by an average of 1 million additional visitors per day. The already overloaded public-transportation system will be burdened with an additional 3 million fares per day. A total of 175 kilometers (109 miles) of the city's streets will be closed off to normal traffic.

Almost twice as many soldiers as Britain has in Afghanistan, a helicopter carrier and special forces units armed to the teeth will make the city look like it's under siege.

Looking at the expectations and bars set by the Chinese in 2008, the British daily The Guardian examined the different messages of Beijing and London. While Beijing was a display of the ascendant power of China, London’s represent “troubled times” for much of the world’s former colonial master.

No one ever expected London 2012 to be as big, as spectacular or as pricey as the Games that preceded it. With a £20bn budget, the Beijing Olympics were the most expensive ever staged. But the differences are as much about culture and state of mind.

Compare and contrast the English eccentricity of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony with the lavish demonstration of Chinese might laid on by another film director, Zhang Yimou, four years ago. Back then, a nation was celebrating and displaying its growing wealth and power.

In contrast, London's Games are opening "in troubled times," warned China's state news agency Xinhua, citing the massive security operation, creaking transport system and unpredictable climate. Yet there is little sense of schadenfreude in China.

While Germany's Der Spiegel newspaper has already raised British hackles with its warning that London and the Olympics is "a match made in hell," Xinhua took care to note that Britain had a successful track record in hosting major sports events and to praise its unparalleled sporting history.

Wei Jizhong, the former general secretary of the Chinese Olympic Committee, was equally restrained. "With the background of the economic crisis in Europe, this Olympic Games will be limited by the budget," he says. "It will be an 'affordable' Olympics. It won't be an extravagance. But he adds: "There are very few things you can compare between Olympic Games, just as you cannot compare China, which has 1.3 billion people, with the UK, which has a population of millions. The London Games will reflect aspects of British politics, economy and culture."

China's experience shows that making the most of those developments can be difficult in the long run. Four years on, even the grandest of the Olympic icons -- the distinctive Bird's Nest national stadium -- is struggling to fill its 80,000 seats regularly. Its operators have said it will take three decades to pay off its 3.5bn yuan (£354m) construction costs. 

Digital magazine Christian Science Monitor chronicled the sentiments of London’s East Enders who have felt left out by the Olympic related development, despite promises for massive redevelopment for the deprived corner of the city.

Sometime after 11 miles of electric fence went up, and local shops went under after the biggest shopping mall in Europe arrived, and missile batteries appeared on rooftops, East Londoners' enthusiasm waned for the Olympic Games that are coming to their doorsteps.

Residents living around the new sports venues -- not to mention the freshly finished hotels and store fronts -- packed into a church recently to discuss how to oppose the missiles. But aside from the unease over living in close proximity to such major weaponry, a wider bitterness permeated the 200-member audience.

When London bid for the 2012 Games, British officials dazzled the Olympic committee with the idea of using the event to lift up and redevelop the down-at-the-heels East End.

With just days to go before the opening ceremony, however, some of the most strident critics of the Games are East Enders, many of whom have felt sidelined by security officials and corporate interests that have transformed this long-neglected corner of town.

Boos sounded when one speaker sheepishly admitted to looking forward to the Games. Resident Len Aldis summed up the prevailing mood: "The spirit of the founding of the Olympic Games has been lost."

Britain as a whole, meanwhile, is ambivalent about the Games, in contrast to the joyful eruptions in 2005, when London learned it would make history by hosting its third Olympics. Now, only 44 per cent say the country should have offered to host them; and in an age of austerity, the potential price tag to the public of $17 billion -- nearly triple the bid estimate -- does not sit well.

The muchness of it all leaves some asking if the Olympics have gotten too big, and too tied to the ambitions of big business and big government. "The Olympics is two weeks of games and a week of Paralympics. And for that you are going to … land yourself in monumental debt?" says Iain Sinclair, a noted East End author.

Security preparations are a major part of the overruns and the concerns. London 2012 will trigger the largest peacetime mobilization of British security forces in modern times, involving 50,000 troops, police, and private contractors. The number of soldiers exceeds Britain's deployment in Afghanistan.

No detail of the Games has more irked locals than the plan to post antiaircraft missiles around the city, including atop an East End apartment tower. The plan came to light when the Ministry of Defense informed residents with a leaflet.

Brian Whelan, a journalist living in the tower, publicized the issue and filed a lawsuit -- only to have his landlords move to evict him. "I'm being victimized for what I did," Mr. Whelan told the recent gathering of residents, which the ministry chose at the last minute not to attend. "I am not sure how they are going to face a terrorist threat if they can't even face us."

An aircraft carrier will be parked in the Thames, and Typhoon fighter jets will be deployed in west London. On top of citywide cameras, police have access to unarmed drones for surveillance. Security screeners will confiscate liquids from spectators before they enter venues, and officials are warning of significant lines.

The Home Office insists, however, that the effort will be in keeping with a British tradition of understated security despite resonances with the US-led global war on terror. "Any military resources will support but not supplant our police-led plans. Visitors to the UK can continue to expect to see the 'bobby on the beat,' not soldiers on the street," says James Brokenshire, minister for crime and security, by e-mail.

But, he says, "the UK is hosting the biggest and most high profile event in living memory" -- so security agencies are leaving nothing to chance.  

Evidently all is not well in the host city of the XXX Olympiad.

East London continues to suffer from a lack of attention and input on a whole is awarded to the multinational corporations with exclusive distribution rights as opposed to Londoners.

And security of this scale has never been seen on any scale except for G-8 summits. Having such a large number of security guards and soldiers on the streets of London takes away from the Olympic spirit.

London has also not figured out a solution to the woeful traffic and transport problems it will face when the Olympics do start.

But it’s too late to dwell on these unanswered issues. The Olympics start tomorrow and Londoners will have to brace for the tsunami of spectators, journalists and security forces that will flood London’s streets for the next two weeks. 

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