Britain awash in gloom as London Olympics approach

By Stephen Wilson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2010 file photo, Mayor of London Boris Johnson talks during a news conference at a school in east London. The Olympic countdown is generating a drumbeat of skepticism, scare stories and doom mongering. Feeding the gloom and grumbling are persistent complaints about the ticketing system, worries about cost overruns, predictions of traffic gridlock and transport chaos, threats of blood shortages, disease and strikes, even talk of drought and water shortages.

Lefteris Pitarakis, File, Associated Press

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."

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