LONDON — The opening ceremony is still 11 days away, but for athletes and Londoners, the Olympics started Monday.
Thousands of competitors descended upon the Athletes Village and training camps, Heathrow Airport experienced its busiest day ever, London drivers grappled with the city’s first “Games Lane” for Olympic vehicles and preparations shifted into the highest gear.
Smart-looking sailors guarded the gates to Olympic Park, looking so cheerful that visitors would never guess they had been pulled off leave only a few days ago to fill a security gap when contractor G4S admitted it couldn’t provide enough guards. As well as 3,500 extra troops, the Olympic security coordinator has dispatched police officers to venues left open when G4S contractors failed to show up for work.
As the Olympic flame made its way to the seaside city of Brighton, organizers revealed dramatic plans for its arrival in London at the end of the week. Someone knows how to make an entrance: a Royal Marine will abseil the flame from a helicopter into the Tower of London, fusing the flame into the very walls of the London landmark.
The day’s excitement all started at Heathrow.
Beneath giant Olympic rings, Americans, Australians, Italians — athletes from 50 nations — touched down in what is being described as Britain’s biggest peacetime transport challenge (the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk clearly being excluded from the calculation.) But it had a feeling of Olympian enormousness — the airport will handle some 236,955 passengers on Monday, breaking the previous record of 233,562 set on July 31, 2011.
“We’ve got into our battle rhythm,” said a cheerful Nick Cole, the head of planning for the games at Heathrow before the arrivals began. A former army officer, he has been preparing for this operation for years and brought in reinforcements to make sure all went smoothly. Heathrow put half of its 1,000 volunteers on duty Monday and created special teams to deal with oversize items like javelins, bikes and sails.
A black T-shirted choir outside Heathrow’s Terminal 5 belted out Adele’s smash hit “Rolling in the Deep,” but many were in too much of a hurry to listen.
For once, incoming passengers didn’t shuffle around in seemingly endless immigration queues waiting to enter Britain. Hundreds of immigration agents were on the job to ease the long lines that have plagued the airport for months. Police and sniff dogs were out in force. Rows of Olympic VIP buses then whisked teams and coaches to the Athletes Village in east London.
Everywhere, anywhere, excited future Olympians were ready for their moment in the London, um, rain. (Even locals have given up hopes that the sun will shine.)
French teen Elisa Liyanage, 14, made a special trip to Heathrow just to hunt for Olympians’ autographs. The young track-and-field enthusiast, who was in England visiting a friend, bounced up and down with delight as she reeled off the number of sportsmen she’d gotten to sign her notebook, including American hurdler Jeff Porter and former Somali middle distance runner Abdi Bile.
“It’s fantastic!” she squealed.
On the other side of the arrivals barrier, Jose Garcia Reyes, the mission chief of Guatemala’s Olympic team, was posing for photos with a big blue-and-white flag — to the obvious annoyance of Heathrow staff, who kept trying to shoo him and his teammates out of the way.
“Uno mas, uno mas (One more, one more)!” the Guatemalans protested as they snapped away.
Reyes said it was his second Olympics — he’d been to Beijing in 2008 — but said it was his first time as chief.
“Yes, I’m excited,” he said.
Others were less than impressed by their first impressions. Bus drivers taking the Americans and the Australians struggled to find their destinations. At least one American athlete, two-time world 400-meter hurdles champion Kerron Clement, was less than complimentary.
“Um, so we’ve been lost on the road for 4hrs. Not a good first impression London,” he tweeted.
U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky said while there were a few glitches, everyone made it safely and just got on with preparing for the most important competition of their lives.
Officials noted that while a few buses might have gotten temporarily lost, hundreds of others managed to get from Heathrow to east London just fine. London Mayor Boris Johnson ruffled his blonde hair and urged everyone to chill out.
“Clearly they would have had even more of an opportunity to see even more of the city than they might otherwise have done,” he said of buses that took a long route to the Olympic Park.
Transportation issues were supposed to have been eased by a “Games Lane” that opened Monday along the vital M4 highway into central London from Heathrow for Olympic VIPs.
More such highway lane closures are coming next week and London drivers have been warned about them for months. Still, many were clearly caught off guard by the Heathrow closure and cars backed up near the airport for miles (kilometers).
London has four other airports, but the Olympic credentials desk is located at Heathrow, so most of the air traffic went there.
Heathrow usually handles 100,000 to 110,000 arrivals a day, but this swelled to 121,239 on Monday, many of them Olympic VIPs. Another big arrival day will be July 25, two days before the opening ceremony.
While the athletes were arriving, Britain’s politicians were fighting over a security fiasco that has seen soldiers pulled from leave to fill gaps in security. Home Secretary Theresa May said the government was not to blame, telling lawmakers that G4S had “repeatedly assured us that they would overshoot their target” for recruiting staff and only admitted last week that it had a problem.
Some 3,500 more troops have been deployed to fill the gaps, and officers from nine police forces have been called in as short-term replacements for some venues for the games that start July 27 and end Aug. 12.
G4S promised that the situation “is being rectified over the coming days,” but West Midlands Police Federation chairman Ian Edwards said the situation was “chaos, absolute chaos.”
With the countdown on for the torch’s arrival in London at the end of its 8,000-mile (12,900-kilometer) journey, Olympic planners let slip some details. High-profile torchbearers — like boxer Lennox Lewis and tennis player Tim Henman — are on tap and the torch won’t miss top London’s sites like Hampton Court, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace.
And then Royal Marine Martyn Williams will drop the flame to the Tower in style.
Williams was wounded in a road mine attack during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. He recovered, overcoming huge odds.
The Marines are proud. He’s thrilled. The moment will be spectacular.
— Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless contributed to this story.