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One year out, 2012 London Olympics are on track

Organizing committee chairman: 'We are absolutely where we want to be'

By Philip Hersh, Tribune Newspapers

4:20 PM EDT, July 26, 2011

LONDON —

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While the first official test event for the 2012 Olympics was taking place nearby, local sports fans Neal Weekes and Gordon Cunningham were talking about the Summer Games over a beer at the Mitre Hotel pub in Greenwich.

"Greatest thing ever to happen to London," Weekes said. "Wouldn't any city in the world want to have the Olympic Games?"

Weekes said he had applied for $14,000 worth of Olympic tickets. The controversial ticket lottery gave him $1,600 in seats for swimming, basketball and the men's soccer final.

Cunningham did not apply for a single ticket. And he doesn't see how he will benefit from the Olympics, especially its $15 billion project, the urban regeneration and Olympic Park in East London that includes the major venues — Olympic Stadium, swimming, basketball, Olympic Village, media and broadcast centers.

"We've been paying taxes for the Olympics since they were announced, and we'll still be doing it for years," Cunningham said.

"But," he concluded, "I think it's going to be a brilliant Games."

A mile away, London Olympic Organizing Committee (LOCOG) chairman Sebastian Coe was sitting in the VIP tent at the test event in equestrian. Its cross-country course likely will provide the iconic image of the London Games, a panoramic view of the city from one of the jumps.

The next day, Coe — an iconic figure in British sport as two-time Olympic champion in the metric mile — would pose for pictures with schoolchildren given free tickets to the event. They are the children whom he hopes — perhaps quixotically — the OIympics will encourage to put aside the video game and try one of the 26 Olympic sports.

The three-day eventing competition went smoothly, save a few complaints about the show jumping surface. It was another example that with a year to go, the London Olympics have a good chance to be brilliant.

Of the 5.3 million tickets made available to date, only many of those for soccer (about 1.3 million) have not been sold. Another million tickets will go on sale later, but demand for the 25 other sports is so intense Coe is begging sponsors and national Olympic committees to return any part of their allocation expected to go unused.

All six permanent venues in the Olympic Park have been completed on schedule. There will be a ceremonial swim and dive in the pool to mark its completion as part of today's year-out festivities.

"We are absolutely where we want to be," Coe said.

Hubris?

"Not at all," Coe insisted. "I know how complicated this is, and I have never kidded myself about it. When the construction is done, our work (as organizing committee) has just begun."

The Olympic Delivery Authority, responsible for building new venues and infrastructure for the London Games, announced last week 88 percent of the construction work is complete. LOCOG is responsible for fitting out the venues.

The things that can be controlled — construction planning, raising sponsorship money, ticket sales — have all gone well, other than public frustration with the ticketing process. Some say the organizers should have dampened expectations everyone would get some tickets they asked for, which was not the case.

That leaves Coe to worry mainly about the unexpected in areas such as transportation, security and weather, where LOCOG must count on relationships it has built with the police and political entities.

While security issues are the most daunting — in July 2005, terrorists killed 52 with bombs on a London bus and the subway a day after the city was awarded the Games — transportation is seen as the most vexing potential problem, despite massive renovation of a public transport system the International Olympic Committee called obsolete in its evaluation of the London bid.

The tube upgrade plan will take another 10 years to complete, but initial phases have focused on lines central to Olympic transport. Work at the main station serving Olympic Park was competed June 1.

Organizers are counting on a 30 percent drop in normal usage to offset the increase from Olympic visitors. They hope transportation unions won't strike. They hope reserving some lanes for Olympic vehicles won't bring predicted traffic chaos.

Some transportation will be easy. The Olympic Village stands just a long three-pointer from the basketball arena and walking distance from the other Olympic Park venues.

Londoner Lorraine Townsend admits to mixed feelings about the Olympics but thinks it will all work out.

"We're good at putting on pomp and circumstance," she said.

Twitter @olyphil

phersh@tribune.com