The Olympic torch relay began its final stretch in London on Saturday, starting in the capital’s historic district of Greenwich on a journey officials hope will help dispel a cloud of gloom and cynicism hanging over the Games.
Officials were all smiles in Greenwich as a young torch bearer jogged through the maritime district’s Royal Park past the grand colonnades of the old naval college. But many Britons fear the games will be a costly, rain-soaked logistical fiasco.
As weeks of rain dampened prospects of a summer buzz ahead of the sporting event, Britain has struggled to raise the necessary number of security guards for the July 27 to August 12 Games. Transport and border staff are set to strike soon.
“As it sprints through the city, I know that its radiance will dispel any last remaining clouds of dampness and anxiety … and it will spread the crackling bush fire of Olympic enthusiasm throughout the city,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told reporters, referring to the torch.
It arrived in London Friday after touring scores of British of towns, cities and villages, delivered by a Royal Marine Commando who abseiled from a helicopter into the Tower of London, one of London’s most popular tourist sites.
In the coming days it will be carried around religious, political and royal landmarks during its tour of the capital, culminating in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron in the main stadium in east London.
Olympic chief Jacques Rogge dismissed pessimism hanging over the Games, telling Reuters on Friday that “despite some difficulties”, he believed the event would be “a great Games”, his last as president of the International Olympic Committee.
Foreign media covering the run up to the Games have poked fun at the British tendency to whinge, with an article in the New York Times labeling “complaining, expecting the worst and cursing the authorities” Londoners’ favorite sports.
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine published a story saying the Games “can’t end soon enough” for the locals and that “London and the Olympic Games are clearly not made for each other”.
Transport delays loom over the event, with border officials going on strike on July 26 and train drivers in central England walking out from August 6-8 during the second week of the Games.
Even before tens of thousands of Olympic tourists arrive, London’s underground rail network already struggles to cope with millions of commuters.
Misgivings over heavy-handed enforcement of copyright on Olympic branding have also cooled enthusiasm, amid reports of vendors being banned from displaying Olympic rings in shop windows or selling types of fast food sold by Olympic sponsors.
Michael Payne, a former Olympic marketing director, told Britain’s Independent newspaper that the Olympic authorities’ enforcement of the sponsorship deals had “gone too far”. Payne is credited with bringing in sponsors such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola in return for use of the Games’ trademarks and the exclusive right to sell their products at the sporting venues.
Still, there are signs that the mood among Britons might be lifting as the games approach.
An Ipsos MORI poll on Friday found that 71 percent of Britons say the Olympics will have a positive effect on the public mood and 61 percent say hosting the Games will boost Britain’s image abroad.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper on Saturday urged Britons to “prepare to be inspired” by the “magnificent once-in-a-lifetime event”, while the Guardian newspaper said it was time to “sit back and relish the heady, exhilarating, unforgettable mix of triumph and disaster that is the Olympic Games”.
Athletes began arriving in London last weekend, and on Saturday Libya’s representatives to the Games left Tripoli for the British capital, hopeful the committee’s president, taken from his car by gunmen last week, would join them.
Editing by Louise Ireland