Back to reality: Britain bounces back after games
LONDON — Basking in post-Olympic glory, Britain succumbed to reality Monday with commuters venturing back to work and Heathrow Airport experiencing one of its busiest days ever.
Some 116,000 people were expected to leave Monday from Heathrow, London’s busiest hub, an exodus that includes some 6,000 athletes and Prime Minister David Cameron going on his vacation. Heathrow usually handles about 95,000 passengers a day.
“The games were awesome,” Tumua Anae, a 23-year-old Californian who won gold with the U.S. water polo team, said as she waited for a flight. “I have to say to Britain, you guys did a great job.”
Heathrow opened a temporary Olympic terminal with 31 check-in desks to accommodate departing athletes and support staff.
The special terminal, designed like a park, was filled with iconic British items including a red phone booth and double-decker bus. Some Heathrow staff wore bearskin hats, much like the guards at Buckingham Palace. The terminal will go back to being a parking lot in three days.
“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.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, the government was criticized for failing to provide enough staff at immigration points, causing massive backlogs.
Some travelers, however, were pleasantly surprised Monday.
“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.
Throughout the capital there were signs that the party was over. In central London’s government district, workers using fork-lift trucks, cherry pickers and small cranes began dismantling the temporary Olympic beach volleyball arena on Horseguards Parade.
It will take several weeks to take down the towering bleachers, which are next door to the prime minister’s home at No. 10 Downing Street.
Sand cleared away from the venue will be used to construct 36 new beach volleyball courts in southern England, part of efforts to boost the sport’s profile in Britain.
Despite fears the games would lead to traffic gridlock, many commuters steered clear after a campaign encouraging people to use public transport. Traffic remained lighter than normal in London Monday.
London mayor Boris Johnson said the city’s public transport system had coped well. Ridership on London Underground — also known as the Tube — was up 30 percent, numbers doubled on the overground Docklands Light Railway, and a city-wide bike hire scheme broke a record with 46,000 bikes rented on a single day.
Commuters reported few problems Monday morning.
“My commute was actually a bit quicker,” said IT manager Amit Katwa. “The Tube was on time. The volume of people on the trains was about the same as normal.”
If transport chiefs were relieved all had gone well, taxi drivers were ecstatic that the games were over and they could once again use special “games lanes” that had been reserved for athletes and officials. The lanes restrictions are to be lifted on Wednesday.
“It’s been brutal,” said Shafiq Arjaz, a 43-year-old cab driver.
Some business owners also expressed relief, complaining that sales had dropped during the games compared to the same period in 2011, while others reported an increase in sales spurred by Olympic visitors.
On the whole, Johnson said, London had defied Olympic skeptics.
“If you were to say to me that we have just held the greatest games ever in Britain, I would say you are on the right track,” the mayor told reporters.
U.S. President Barack Obama phoned Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday to praise the country’s hosting of the Olympics, which proved hugely popular at home and abroad.
The BBC said more than 26.3 million people in the United Kingdom watched the closing ceremony Sunday night, compared with 26.9 million who watched the opener on July 27.
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, which will run Aug. 29 to Sept. 9.
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.
Park worker Francis Joseph said he missed the crowds that have thronged the venue over the past two weeks.
“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 Olympics 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.
The company has donated 2.5 million pounds ($3.9 million) to the military, which will go to charities.
The donation is in addition to what the company will end up owing the government for the extra manpower. The company expects to lose between 35 and 50 million pounds ($54 and $78 million) on the Olympic contract.
Meanwhile, some 250 people were arrested during the games, but there were no major security incidents.
“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,” said Chris Allison, the Olympics Security Coordinator.
Some 7,000 police officers and 5,000 G4S workers will be on hand to guard the Paralympics.