London gears up for Olympics as only the British can

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.

Thrilled, but measured. Proud, but wary. Ready to be swept up in the magic of it all, but wondering at what cost.

"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.

"We're not going to make money on it," Hughes said. She has friends who have lost jobs during the financial crisis, she added, "yet we can host all these people? It's ridiculous."

She conceded a bright spot. "The only good thing is Stratford has been regenerated," she said of the east London area where Olympic Park has risen from what Hughes called "a hell hole."

Her co-worker, Nimesh Patel, 22, an assistant accountant, lives near the newly constructed park and would seem to have preferred the hellish predecessor.

"I live two minutes away from Stratford, and there's a lot of traffic down there," he said. While his commute to work in Brixton is the same as ever, "getting to places in my neighborhood is kind of a hassle."

Local grousing about big events that seem staged largely for out-of-towners is surely not limited to any one jurisdiction — as anyone in Baltmore in advance of last Labor Day's Grand Prix may remember. And there were those on Thursday who dismissed their fellow citizenry's complaints: Don't worry about the worrying, in other words.

Glasford Morgan, a retired broadcast engineer, is not going to let anyone, or any clouds, rain on his anticipation of the Games. Originally from Jamaica, he has lived here for 25 years and said he cannot wait to see countryman Usain Bolt break his own records.

"Now that the sun is shining, it brings out the best in the British," said Morgan, 63, who brought his 8-year-old grandson Kaieran Morgan to the torch relay. "If it was last week, it would be all gloom. So everybody is upbeat now and hopes it will be a success."

Clara Veneri-Thomas similarly is happy to welcome the Olympics to her adopted hometown. As an Italian who married a Brit and has lived here for 10 years, she has a unique insider-outsider perspective on the country's well-known reserve.

"They never used to do things like this," said Veneri-Thomas, showing off tiny I-heart-London earrings. "They're patriotic, but they don't show things too much."

A make-up artist, she is loving it all, the Stella McCartney-designed uniforms for British athletes, for example, and how her 6-year-old son's class has incorporated the Olympics into the school day

But even she has to say that the Games organizers haven't exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to tickets. She has relatives who tried, and failed to get tickets, and believes many of them went to corporations or were packaged by travel agents and sold as blocks rather than individually. And, on a more macro level, she fears the Games will only deepen Britain's share of the on-going global financial woes.

"We are in a deep crisis," she said. "I think after the Olympics we'll be even further down."

Still, after some in the crowd that had gathered hours in advance for a fleeting sight of the torch, the arrival of the accompanying convoy drew loud cheers and seemingly every cell phone — by a child on his father's shoulders even — held high to capture it all.

First came vehicles flying the sponsors colors and logos, Coca-Cola and Samsung among them. People cheered from windows lining the route and a balcony of the Ritzy cinema, now showing The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spiderman among other movies. The Union Jack, in the hands of those in the convoy and those watching, fluttered in the midday brightness — and causing more than a few internal ripples as well.

"This feels like my hometown," an emotional Cohen said. "It's funny, I didn't think it would affect me. It's surprising to me that I've gotten into the Olympics."

Opening Ceremonies

When: 9 p.m. in London. That's 4 p.m. EST.

TV: Ch. 11 (coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. EST).

Cast: More than 15,000 expected to take part in "Isle of Wonder."