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Planning for the 2012 Olympics, Britain’s ‘Largest Peacetime Operation’

July 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
With a little more than a week until the Olympic opening ceremonies, issues such as transportation, weather and security have arisen. Gwen Ifill talks with Stephen Wilson of The Associated Press and Kevin Wamsley of University of Western Ontario about whether organizers are fully prepared for the start of the games.
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GWEN IFILL: For more about London’s issues and how the Olympics have both helped and bedeviled other cities, we turn to two people watching all this closely.

Stephen Wilson is the European sports editor for The Associated Press in London. He’s covering his 13th Olympic Games. And Kevin Wamsley is the former director of the International Center for Olympic Studies at Western University* in Ontario, Canada.

Steve, after covering 13 Games and watching this latest little, rocky opening for the London Olympics, is it as difficult to pull together as it seems it is?

STEPHEN WILSON, AP: Well, it really is. I mean, Britain has been preparing seven years for this event, and it’s what they normally call the biggest peacetime operation in British history to prepare.

And we are in a rocky phase in the last few days and weeks, but it’s not unusual for Olympic city to go through these things.

GWEN IFILL: Are there any concerns tonight that the security questions which have been raised in the last week or so are serious enough to change the tenor, the nature of these Olympics?

STEPHEN WILSON: Well, I think the face of the security of the Olympics has changed for sure.

Even behind me here on the Olympic site, we’re seeing soldiers in military gear just handling a normal routine. And that wasn’t planned. However, for some people, it’s actually provided a bit of reassurance. The soldiers have been professional, they have been friendly. They seem happy to be here.

But there are, of course, still serious issues to deal with in terms of getting all the security numbers up to scratch, making sure all the venues are protected as they were supposed to be.

GWEN IFILL: Kevin Wamsley, you have been also studying this for a while. How unusual is it for London to seem to be having these last-minute snafus? Does this happen everywhere?

KEVIN WAMSLEY, University of Western Ontario: Well, the Olympic Games are the biggest cultural event in the world today and probably with the greatest media coverage of any event in the world since the 1980s.

And it really is a big deal, and it really puts a strain on a nation, on a city. So it’s not unusual in the final days leading up to the Olympic Games that there are many contingencies to deal with. We saw that in Sydney. We saw it in Athens. We saw it in Beijing. So it’s really not a surprise.

GWEN IFILL: Kevin, let me stay with you for a moment on this, because I wonder, especially when it comes to security, whether things have gotten much more difficult now post-9/11, as these cities plan for these massive events.

KEVIN WAMSLEY: Yes, it really is complicated.

Certainly, communications have changed, and the venues are different. Certainly, every geographical location presents its complications, its problems, its challenges. Britain has to protect itself by air, by water, through the Internet, on site. There are many challenges that run the cost of security into the billions, and certainly the technical expertise for these games is astounding.

GWEN IFILL: Steve, how much does this readiness issue extend beyond just security? I have seen stories about transportation issues as well.

STEPHEN WILSON: Yes.

There’s been a drip, drip, drip of some negative news in the last few days and weeks, which again is not unusual. But it’s adding up. And it’s casting a bit of a pall over the games. The weather, for example, is still not what we had hoped to be. It’s been raining again a bit today.

Hopefully, the forecast for next week is getting better. But even just today, we have had a slew of items which add up into the negative column. We had three Australian badminton players who came down with food poisoning at the athletes village where they were staying in the middle of England.

And in the Olympic Village here behind, we had — athletes went without water in some parts of the village for a few hours today. And we have also had — Danny Boyle, the director of the opening ceremony, has had to cut back some of the ceremony to make sure that it finishes on time, something which I don’t think he was hoping to do.

So, every day, there’s a little bit more and more of these issues coming up. And transportation, of course, as you mentioned, will be a key, key factor. And we have only started feeling that now with some of the buses taking the athletes to and fro. Well, next week, when they are all here and all the media is here and the people start to move around, it will really become a big challenge.

GWEN IFILL: Kevin, while there’s a temptation to look at all of these details, add them up and think to yourself, oh, my goodness, a bad thing is about to happen, in the other — in the other Olympics you have studied, have you seen that sort of buildup just before, or is this unusual in any way?

KEVIN WAMSLEY: No, it’s not unusual at all.

In fact, people need something to write about. It’s such a huge media event. The organizers can only hope that journalists are bored and they’re only writing about the athletes or the venues, and they don’t have any big political crises to deal with, big security issues leading up to the games.

There haven’t been any attacks. There have been some warnings. People have talked about the burgeoning debt, the facilities not being ready in previous Olympic Games, all kinds of problems like this. So it’s not unusual for the media to be focusing in on what it can to create stories and excitement before the Olympics Games. And problems create excitement. So, that is all part of the package.

GWEN IFILL: It’s expensive, though. We know that. And we know a lot of construction goes for these Olympics. And these cities and these countries hope to benefit long-term. Does it pay off?

That’s for you, Kevin Wamsley.

KEVIN WAMSLEY: Well, generally, it pays off in a number of different ways.

It can be a good way to bring citizens of a nation together. It can be a great part of constructing national identity. It’s a feel-good event. People in England can be proud of what they accomplish in terms of hosting the games.

But, financially, that’s another story. Historically, there’s only been one Olympic Games that’s turned to profit, and that’s Los Angeles in 1984. And all other Olympic Games have come at a tremendous cost to the public purse and to the corporations who sponsor the Olympic Games.

GWEN IFILL: Steve Wilson, are tickets being sold? And do these questions about security dampen that at all?

STEPHEN WILSON: I don’t think it has affected the ticket sales.

But, in fact, the organizers had hoped to sell out these games. And they have done a pretty good job of that. However, they admitted yesterday, in fact, that they haven’t. And, in fact, there was — half a million tickets for the soccer tournament have been withdrawn because they couldn’t sell them. And there are still several hundred thousand tickets yet on the market for football, for soccer and for other events.

So, it’s not a sellout yet, but I think you will see a lot more packed stadiums than you did in Beijing, where empty seats were fairly common and didn’t give a good image of those games.

GWEN IFILL: But you don’t think that the lack of sellout has anything to do with these reports we have been hearing about security; there are no fears which are sparking that?

STEPHEN WILSON: No, no sense that that’s the case.

I think it’s just — it was a hard sell to get the soccer tickets sold. It’s being held in six different venues across the U.K. And the fans here in the U.K., they prefer Premier League soccer and World Cup and European Championships. It’s a hard sell to get those tickets in the market here.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and, as you said, drip, drip, drip, the rain keeps falling in London, as it always does.

Steve Wilson, Kevin Wamsley, thank you so much.