Olympic chiefs hit back at cynics as excitement mounts

LONDON Sun Jul 22, 2012 9:29pm IST

View of Olympic Rings near the Velodrome in the Olympic Park in Stratford, London, July 21, 2012. REUTERS/Neil Hall

View of Olympic Rings near the Velodrome in the Olympic Park in Stratford, London, July 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Neil Hall

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LONDON (Reuters) - Organisers of the Olympics hit back on Sunday at cynics after weeks of negative headlines, saying criticism over planning mistakes and costs were being outweighed by a surge in public excitement as the gala opening ceremony nears.

Britain's famously caustic media, which have highlighted security and transport problems before the July 27-August 12 Games, also seemed to adopt a more positive stance as thousands turned out to cheer the Olympic torch relay through London.

"I think possibly what we're going through as a nation, as a city is that necessary, pre-curtain-up moment of psychological self-depression before the excitement begins on Friday when the curtain goes up," London Mayor Boris Johnson told the BBC.

"The mood is perceptibly changing. People are starting to get really excited here in London about the arrival of the torch .... The last remaining clouds of dampness and Olympo-scepticism are going to be banished," he later told Sky News.

Thousands turned out in London on Saturday as the Olympic torch relay began the final leg of its journey around Britain, and on Sunday the flame was carried to the top of the London Eye ferris wheel opposite Big Ben and the houses of parliament.

In the coming days, the torch will be carried around London's religious, political and royal landmarks, culminating in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron in east London.

The run-up to the Games has been dogged by weeks of rain and difficulties in recruiting enough security staff, prompting the government to draft thousands of extra army personnel to make up for the shortfall.

Transport delays also loom over the Games, with border staff planning to strike on July 26 - expected to be one of the busiest days in the history of London's Heathrow airport - over job cuts and pay, and train drivers in central England set to walk out on August 6-8 in a dispute over pension contributions.

London's underground rail network, a 19th-century creation, may struggle to cope with tens of thousands of Olympic tourists.

"FIGHT BACK"

The government and the union representing border staff on Sunday appeared no closer to averting industrial action.

"People are working at breaking point. When passengers are queuing at Heathrow for four hours, they take their anger out on front-line border staff and nobody should have to work in those conditions," said union boss Mark Serwotka.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave little ground.

"Surely this is a time not for promoting an industrial grievance, but putting the country first," he said.

The spat has added to a slew of negative headlines about the Games and a raft of logistical headaches for Olympic organisers.

Writing in the Daily Mail newspaper, Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Olympic organising committee, said the words "fiasco, chaos and crisis" had become the new currency of journalists, who describe his committee as "dysfunctional".

"Sometimes you fight back because the reportage bears no resemblance to reality .... You have the insatiable desire to start every explanation to your inquisitor with: 'Lighten up. We are staging the greatest celebration of sport'," he said.

Britain's press, however, appeared to be joining the Games bandwagon on Sunday, dedicating pages to the torch relay in London and giving away special Olympic guides and supplements.

JITTERS

Still, jitters hang over the Games, with 2012 being the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich attack by Palestinian militants that killed 11 Israeli Olympic team members - a reminder of the security challenges ahead.

"This is an event that is naturally attractive, even if there aren't concrete alerts. Readiness and vigilance are required .... Things like the Munich massacre have happened in the past," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told reporters.

Olympic organisers on Saturday ruled out marking the anniversary of the killings at the London opening ceremony, despite campaigning by the victims' families.

For one Olympic team, security problems began before they had even left home, with the president of Libya's Olympic Committee Nabil Elalem taken from his car by gunmen in Tripoli last week, before being freed on Sunday.

A colleague said he may still make it to the Games.

Pope Benedict, speaking during his regular Sunday address, said he hoped the London Games - the first in the British capital since 1948 - would foster world peace.

"I pray that, in the spirit of the Olympic truce, the goodwill generated by this international sporting event may bear fruit, promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the world."

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, James Mackenzie in Rome and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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