When the 2012 Olympians made their much-anticipated arrival in London yesterday, not everything went off as planned. Three buses full of athletes and other guests got lost en route from the airport to their lodgings, wandering around the city for hours as the riders worried not about medals, but bathroom breaks.
“Athletes are sleepy, hungry, and need to pee,” tweeted world champion U.S. hurdler Kerron Clement in the midst of his four-hour ordeal. “Could we get to the Olympic Village please?”
But the case of the misplaced athletes pales in comparison to the brewing scandal over the missing security guards, which boiled over in Parliament today. Nick Buckles, the head of the G4S security firm that received an $89 million management fee to help police the Olympics, was verbally assaulted by lawmakers for his company’s shoddy preparations for the event. (He admitted the plan was "in shambles.")
The furor first erupted several days ago, when it was revealed that the firm would be coming up at least 3,500 people short of the 10,500 trained security guards it had promised for the Games. Now, critics say they even have reason to doubt Buckles’s revised promise of 7,000 guards, who will be paid $13 an hour.
To make up the lost numbers, the Army has been called to the rescue, with an extra 3,500 troops pulled into Olympics duty so far, and the possibility of more on the way. Britons were scandalized last week by reports that some troops would be forced to perform menial tasks such as bag checks, and possibly relegated to sleeping in schools. "It is very demeaning that highly professional soldiers and Marines who have served two or three tours of duty in Afghanistan now find themselves doing bog-standard security checks because the Olympic organizers can't get their act together,” one senior military official told The Daily Telegraph.
More than 13,000 soldiers were already expected to be on hand for the Games—along with fighter jets, root-top missile systems, the country’s largest warship, and the full brunt of British intelligence services and London’s famed Scotland Yard police force. Even before the G4S fiasco, though, many experts were worrying about how the city planned to smoothly pull off such a large-scale operation.
Andy Redhead, a security expert with Sec-Tech UK Limited, who spent 20 years with London’s Metropolitan Police, told The Daily Beast last month that his old colleagues might have a hard time coordinating with all the new faces, particularly on the private-security end. Troubling reports had already surfaced that the vetting process wasn’t up to par. “You’re going to have thousands of private contractors, then the police, then plainclothes officers, then secret service—there are so many layers in there that command and control becomes a major issue,” he said. “If I were still a serving police officer, and I’ve got security guards around me wearing a uniform who have been brought in and may not have even had sufficient training—in the event that something happens, can I trust them?”
Recent reports that not all GS4 guards will be fluent in English are unlikely to ease such concerns. Redhead also pointed to an issue that, in all the handwringing over the private-security scandal, may be getting overlooked: in an already-crowded city of more than 7.5 million, regular Londoners will still have to go about their daily lives. (The transport authority has advised residents to either stay at home, walk to work, or go on vacation for the duration of the Games.)
“There are so many layers in there that command and control becomes a major issue.”
“There’s still going to be traffic accidents, people are still going to need emergency services, they’re still going to be knifed,” Redhead said. “And the police are going to have to take care of that as well.”
In an article published this week, the German newsweekly Der Spiegel made the case that even without the expected 1 million Olympics visitors, London is already exceptionally strained.
“Even in good times, Western Europe’s biggest and most colorful city is a place that demands a high tolerance for stress,” the article reads. The Olympics, it predicts, “will be an arduous obstacle course for everyone.”