Arriving at an Olympics is a bit like showing up for a new job in a new city. The last time you saw the complex in which you'll be working, it was a construction site. You're not sure which form of transportation will get you there fastest. You don't have a key to anything. You don't know the phone number to the office. You don't even know where your office is. Your cell phone doesn't have service. You don't have a home yet, so you're living in a hotel. You're on a steep learning curve.
Nevertheless, that first day at the Olympics is exhilarating. When Pamelia and I touched down in London early Monday morning after an overnight flight from New York, the weather, rainy for weeks, had turned sunny and warm. We (or I) zipped through media accreditation and passport control (journalists are ushered through the expedited Olympic Family lane), took the swift Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station and were in a cab scarcely an hour after we'd landed.
That's when things slowed down, of course. This is London. Traffic wasn't moving. The Olympics have made driving here even more difficult than usual, and the cabbie was well aware that two days hence the planned Olympic detours and road blocks and lane closures would multiply. "Wednesday," he said. "That's when I start taking the tablets. For me nerves."
Residents of host cities always grumble during Olympic preparations. Construction work, ticket snafus, excessive government spending—the complainers and late-night comics have a wealth of material to work with. London has a fabulous mass-transit system, but the collective dread and griping over congestion and delays (among many other topics) have put Olympic organizers here on the defensive about the city's ability to handle the influx of a million Games-time visitors.
Anticipating the opening of special Olympic-vehicle lanes later this week, I've become a bus rider. I walk 15 minutes from my hotel to Russell Square, the media transportation hub in the Bloomsbury section of London, and climb to the upper level of a red, journalists-only double-decker. I then take a 35-minute ride through the city and along the Thames and past a less scenic urban stretch to the Olympic Park, site of multiple venues, including the main press center, which will be my waking-hours home for the next three weeks. Not every journalist has had so smooth an experience on the media transport system; an SI colleague was on that bus for an hour and 45 minutes getting here yesterday because of traffic. Late Monday afternoon, some subway lines were stopped or delayed because of technical problems even as 60,000 people were on their way to the Olympic Stadium for a dress-rehearsal for Friday night's opening ceremony.
Those are inconveniences; the glitches will get worked out. People here are quite conscious, however, of another, more serious, threat to the Games, namely a terrorist incident. The morning after the International Olympic Committee chose London over Paris as the 2012 host city seven years ago, four Islamist suicide bombers in London killed 52 other people and wounded more than 700 in attacks on subways and a bus (which at the time happened to be near Russell Square). Now, every terminal-to-terminal train at Heathrow is emptied after each one-way trip and inspected for bombs before a new load of passengers can board. Soldiers searched my double-decker media bus at Russell Square before we could leave for the Olympic Park, and the bus was again checked (one beret-wearing soldier circled it, looking beneath the entire undercarriage for anything suspicious) at the entrance to the park.
Our Monday morning cabbie said that he was a little concerned about the risks of taking his two daughters, ages 10 and 14, to the opening night of track and field events on August 3. "It's in the back of your mind, the terrorism," he said. "It's a worrying point."
The tight security checks are welcome, and here's hoping that this will be the last time I even have to mention the threat of an incident. There's much more going on here—great stories and extraordinary athletes and a city that has worked for seven years to get this event right. It will be everyone's good fortune if the worst we have to talk about is the return of the rain.
A Taste of Maine We've left The Naturalist's Notebook in the good hands of Eli, Virginia, Haley and Julie and will pass on reports from them while over here. All seems to be well in Maine at the moment, and I have to toss in at least one shot:
Or maybe two shots:
Today's Puzzler What type of tree is blossoming in this photo taken in Maine a few weeks ago?
a) Honey locust b) Sugar maple c) American chestnut