LONDON ——The Olympic torch came to Brixton on Thursday, and so did Amy Cohen.
She lived in the South London district until recently, a job change and the continuing financial crisis sending her to live back home with her parents at age 34. Among the throngs who gathered to cheer the torch onward to its final destination, lighting the caldron to open the 2012 Games Friday night, Cohen was nothing if not characteristically British in her ambivalence when it comes to the approaching Games.
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"First of all, it's typically English to complain and look for the negatives," Cohen said as she prepared to do just that. "I travel a lot on the Tube and it's bad enough and it's going to get worse."
As the UK welcomes the world's greatest athletes to town, they are also bracing for expected transit, security and, of course, weather woes. Some are nearly cheery, and certainly self-aware, of a certain propensity to take a global athletic spectacle and reduce it to personal inconvenience if not utter shambles.
If this was already part of the national character, the final run-up to the Games has served as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
First among equals in the shambles department has been security — or, at least, the private security company G4S, which conceded earlier this month that it would not be able to come up with the 10,400 bodies it was contracted to provide for the Olympics and subsequent Paralympics. Cue the summoning of officials before Parliament for some verbal slapping and a call-up of British troops to make up the shortfall, nevermind that some had just returned from tours in Afghanistan.
Then, there has been the growing fear of how regular, working Londoners would get about their business as an estimated 500,000 visitors descend on their already congested city. Tensions have been brewing over the 30 miles of lanes that have been set aside for officials — and in the interest of full disclosure, the media — to make swift passage to Olympic venues.
The Olympics-only lanes opened Wednesday, with official vehicles, bearing the magenta London 2012 logo, breezing by commuters who no doubt were steaming in slow and at times standstill lanes. The famously well-mannered London cabbies have been infuriated, staging a protest in which one driver jumped into the Thames River off the Tower Bridge from which hang giant Olympic rings.
Another day, another shambles: On Wednesday, the South Korean flag was shown on a video screen at a women's football match rather than the actual banner of the North Korean team that was playing. Diplomatic shambles. On Thursday, there was U.S. presidential candidate — and former head of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics — Mitt Romney saying there were a few "disconcerting" things about London's preparations. And not to be outdone, a Democratic superPAC had to pull a campaign ad using Olympics imagery against Romney. Political shambles.
There have been a range of responses. Lord Sebastian Coe, the four-time Olympic medalist who became chairman of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, or LOCOG, dismissed much of it as so much carping.
"The sort of complaining in the two-week lead-up to an Olympic Games is like a Naval captain complaining about the ocean," Coe told the Chicago Tribune in an interview this week. "It is what it is. Everything becomes an Olympic-related story. And that is understandable. Neither am I sanguine or cavalier about the public attitudes."
Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday addressed the issues as well at a press conference at Olympic Park. Re the flag fiasco: "It was an honest mistake, an apology has been made. ... We shouldn't over-inflate this episode. It was unfortunate and we will leave it at that." The Romney disparagement: "This is a time of economic difficulty for the UK but look at what we are capable of achieving as a nation. Even at a difficult economic time look at this park that has been built from scratch in seven years."
As for the weather, this summer has been inordinantly wet, even by British standards. This week, the sun shone warmly over London, lightening the mood, but not for long — either climatically or psychologically it seems.
Forecasters are predicting the return of the rains on Friday.
"And then it will rain for the rest of our lives," Heath Gardiner said rather happily for so downcast a forecast. "Expect the worst and you'll never be surprised."
Gardiner, 42, joined a much more upbeat crowd for their fleeting glimpse of the torch, on the 69th day of its 70-day journey to the stadium. He came not so much to praise the Games, but to ditch the office.
"The reason we're here is we work two minutes from here and it was sit at our desks or come here," said Gardiner, who owns a company called Polestars, which runs hen parties. (Translation: bachelorette parties.)
Laura Hughes, 22, who does marketing and public relations for the company, said the lavishly budgeted Games couldn't come at a worse time as Brits have faced layoffs and cutbacks during the global recession.