- Associated Press - Monday, July 16, 2012

LONDON — The opening ceremony is still 11 days away, but for athletes and Londoners, the Olympics started Monday.

Thousands of competitors descended upon the Athletes Village and training camps, Heathrow Airport experienced its busiest day ever, London drivers grappled with the city’s first “Games Lane” for Olympic vehicles and preparations shifted into the highest gear.

Smart-looking sailors guarded the gates to Olympic Park, looking so cheerful that visitors would never guess they had been pulled off leave only a few days ago to fill a security gap when contractor G4S admitted it couldn’t provide enough guards. As well as 3,500 extra troops, the Olympic security coordinator has dispatched police officers to venues left open when G4S contractors failed to show up for work.

As the Olympic flame made its way to the seaside city of Brighton, organizers revealed dramatic plans for its arrival in London at the end of the week. Someone knows how to make an entrance: a Royal Marine will abseil the flame from a helicopter into the Tower of London, fusing the flame into the very walls of the London landmark.

The day’s excitement all started at Heathrow.

Beneath giant Olympic rings, Americans, Australians, Italians — athletes from 50 nations — touched down in what is being described as Britain’s biggest peacetime transport challenge (the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk clearly being excluded from the calculation.) But it had a feeling of Olympian enormousness — the airport will handle some 236,955 passengers on Monday, breaking the previous record of 233,562 set on July 31, 2011.

“We’ve got into our battle rhythm,” said a cheerful Nick Cole, the head of planning for the games at Heathrow before the arrivals began. A former army officer, he has been preparing for this operation for years and brought in reinforcements to make sure all went smoothly. Heathrow put half of its 1,000 volunteers on duty Monday and created special teams to deal with oversize items like javelins, bikes and sails.

A black T-shirted choir outside Heathrow’s Terminal 5 belted out Adele’s smash hit “Rolling in the Deep,” but many were in too much of a hurry to listen.

For once, incoming passengers didn’t shuffle around in seemingly endless immigration queues waiting to enter Britain. Hundreds of immigration agents were on the job to ease the long lines that have plagued the airport for months. Police and sniff dogs were out in force. Rows of Olympic VIP buses then whisked teams and coaches to the Athletes Village in east London.

Everywhere, anywhere, excited future Olympians were ready for their moment in the London, um, rain. (Even locals have given up hopes that the sun will shine.)

French teen Elisa Liyanage, 14, made a special trip to Heathrow just to hunt for Olympians’ autographs. The young track-and-field enthusiast, who was in England visiting a friend, bounced up and down with delight as she reeled off the number of sportsmen she’d gotten to sign her notebook, including American hurdler Jeff Porter and former Somali middle distance runner Abdi Bile.

“It’s fantastic!” she squealed.

On the other side of the arrivals barrier, Jose Garcia Reyes, the mission chief of Guatemala’s Olympic team, was posing for photos with a big blue-and-white flag — to the obvious annoyance of Heathrow staff, who kept trying to shoo him and his teammates out of the way.

“Uno mas, uno mas (One more, one more)!” the Guatemalans protested as they snapped away.

Reyes said it was his second Olympics — he’d been to Beijing in 2008 — but said it was his first time as chief.

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