Britain awash in gloom as London Olympics approach

Posted March 09, 2012, at 4:25 p.m.

LONDON — 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.

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