London goes back to reality after Olympics

PAISLEY DODDS AND GREGORY KATZ
Last updated 23:55 13/08/2012
London stadium locked up
Reuters

BUSIEST DAY: Long lines form at Heathrow Airport as athletes, officials spectators and tourists gear up to leave London following the Olympic Games.

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Basking in post-Olympic glory, Britain succumbed to reality today with commuters venturing back to work and Heathrow Airport bracing for one of its busiest days ever.

Some 116,000 people are expected to leave on Monday alone - an exodus that includes some 6,000 athletes and Prime Minister David Cameron for his long-awaited summer vacation.

"The games were awesome," said Tumua Anae, a 23-year-old Californian who won gold for the US water polo team. "I have to say to Britain, you guys did a great job."

Heathrow opened a special Olympic terminal with 31 check-in desks to accommodate departing athletes and support staff.

The special terminal, designed like a London park, was filled with iconic items such as a red telephone box and a double-decker bus. Some Heathrow staff were stationed at a ticket counter wearing bearskin hats, much like the guards at Buckingham Palace.

The special terminal will be decommissioned after three days and will go back to being a staff car park.

"This terminal is cool. I was so shocked when we came in - there was grass and it looked like an English garden," said Lisa Ericson, a member of Sweden's sailing team.

Part of the challenge in dealing with all the departures will be bags. Some of the athletes are traveling with more than three bags.

"It's going pretty well," said Emma Gilthorpe, a spokeswoman with Heathrow's operator, British Airports Authority. "We've got 6,000 athletes coming through the terminal (Monday), with several thousand more bags. So yes, it's going well."

Heathrow, which usually deals with about 95,000 passengers a day, was criticized before the Olympics for failing to provide enough staff at immigration points.

Some travelers, however, were pleasantly surprised today.

"I didn't expect just to whizz through like this," said Sashi Singh, a retired businessman returning to his home in Fiji after coming to London for the games.

In a telephone call, US President Barack Obama praised Cameron on the country's hosting of the Olympics. More than 26 million people watched the closing ceremony, only slightly less than the 26.9 million who watched the opening.

Cameron, meanwhile, praised the nearly 90,000 Olympics volunteers who helped during the games.

"The volunteers, members of the armed forces, police and others who worked on the games are the ones who made them possible," Cameron said.

Traffic also returned to normal today - many commuters steered clear of London during the games after a campaign to use public transport.

Some taxi drivers said they were ecstatic that the games were over.

During the Olympics, taxis were prohibited from driving in special Olympic lanes for athletes and officials.

"It's been brutal," said Shafiq Arjaz, a 43-year-old cab driver.

Businesses, too, said they lost money during the games - largely because many people stayed away from London.

A survey of business traffic commissioned by trade body UKinbound during the three weeks of the London games has found that 82 percent of tourism-oriented businesses suffered lost business versus the same period of 2011. Two-thirds said the numbers of tourists fell more than 10 percent.

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The group says a survey of more than 250 tour operators, hoteliers and visitor attractions found that tourist traffic fell all over Britain, not just London.

But Visa, the only credit card accepted at the Olympics, said that international visitors to Britain spent more than 450 million pounds ($705 million) on their cards during the first week of the games, up by 8 percent over the same time last year.

Around 12.7 million pounds were spent on Visa cards in London restaurants last week, an increase of almost 20 percent on a year ago.

The Olympic Park, visited by more than 5 million people over the last 17 days, was eerily deserted Monday.

The main stadium was blocked off by metal barriers, concession stands closed, the world's biggest McDonald's empty. Small groups of construction workers scurried about in small vehicles, working to transform the venues for use in the Paralympics.

The park will be closed to the public until then - and for almost a year afterwards, while some venues will be torn down and others modified. It will open in stages from next summer as the 227-hectare (560-acre) Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Games organizers say most of the venues' structures will not change for the Paralympics, but they will get new signs - with the Paralympic emblem replacing the Olympic rings - as well as changes to the playing fields and seating and better accessibility for disabled athletes and spectators.

The thousands of paralympic athletes from around the world who will stay at the Athletes Village include 1,800 wheelchair users.

Two new venues are opening for the Paralympics - Eton Manor, a wheelchair tennis stadium inside Olympic Park, and a road cycling venue at Brands Hatch, south of London.

A total of 17 venues around the country - including the beach volleyball sandpit at Horseguards Parade in central London - are being dismantled.

Park worker Francis Joseph sat atop a lifeguard-style high chair - where volunteers with megaphones directed crowds during the Games - and looked at the empty park with a touch of sadness.

"For two weeks, we saw a lot of people - all of a sudden it just went off, like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

The games, which will be followed by the Paralympics from August 29 to September 9, were hailed as a security success even though private contractor G4S failed to provide enough staff for the games. In the end, the military stepped in and provided some 3,500 personnel to make up for the shortfall.

G4S spokesman Adam Mynott said the company has donated 2.5 million pounds ($NZ4.8 million) to the military, which will be then be donated to charities.

The donation is in addition to what the company will end up owing the government for the extra manpower. The company expects a loss of between 35 and 50 million pounds on the Olympic contract.

Meanwhile, some 250 people were arrested during the games, but there were no terror incidents or disruptive protests.

"I'm very proud that we didn't have anything serious to deal with, but that was because of a lot of hard work done by a lot of people," Chris Allison, the Olympics Security Coordinator, told The Associated Press. "The focus has been exactly where we wanted - on the sport and not security."

But the security operation isn't over yet, Allison said.

Some 7000 police officers and some 5000 G4S workers will be on hand to guard the Paralympics.

Carmelina Moscato, a member of the Canadian team which took bronze in the women's soccer, was headed back to Toronto.

"This has been one of the best experiences I could have wished for. It's like being in dreamland. I could not have asked for more."

- AP

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