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London Olympics not everyone’s cup of tea

But merchants, renters hope for Olympic gold

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

LONDON — A stroll through just about any part of this sprawling city would have one believe that Britons are flushed with hysteria ahead of the Olympic Games that begin next week. Giant multicolored rings hanging from Tower Bridge loom over the Thames, a countdown clock greets tourists at Trafalgar Square and neon "London 2012" banners crisscross streets near Covent Garden.

But appearances can be deceiving. While businesses and elected officials revel in Olympics mania, citizens tend to be underwhelmed.

"I can hardly contain my indifference," said Philip Markham of Osgodby, a village outside York in North England, who was sipping a pint of ale outside a London pub with his wife, Margaret. "I wish Paris would have won [the bid to host the games]."

The main reason Mr. Markham and many other Britons give for being less than thrilled is financial. The cost of hosting the Olympics has ballooned from a projected $3.7 billion back in 2005 to as much as $37.2 billion, according to a Sky Sports investigation that factors in additional costs of security and transportation upgrades.

Olympics organizers insist that the project is hewing to its allocated budget of $14.4 billion.

"Unfortunately, we won the bid before the recession," he said, describing the games as "the last thing we can afford to take on right now."

The Olympic-size tab — which comes due as the conservative-led British government preaches budget austerity — has been the subject of punch lines and political cartoons. Critics were particularly vocal this year when officials unveiled a towering stone-and-steel sculpture in Weymouth, a town along the English Channel where Olympic sailing events are to be held. The structure, which involves 16 prehistoric stones, cost taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars.

Indeed, 64 percent of U.K. adults interviewed in April by the market research firm ComRes said citizens have been asked to shell out "too much" for the games. The survey, commissioned by the BBC, showed waning enthusiasm the farther respondents lived from London.

Of course, it's a different vantage point for London businesses, which are hoping the influx of spectators, athletes and journalists will be a boon to their bottom lines.

The Marquis Cornwallis, a Bloomsbury pub known for its selection of American craft beer, hired three more employees to deal with the extra traffic. Bar supervisor Daniel Riofrio said he expects most of the additional customers to be members of the media, 5,000 of whom will be staying in nearby Russell Square.

"We're just preparing ourselves for anything," Mr. Riofrio said. "I'm hoping it's going to be crazy."

During the two weeks of the games, the pub plans to expand its morning hours and offer breakfast every day, as opposed to only Saturday.

It's not just the hospitality industry that hopes to cash in. More than half of the country's landlords are raising rents for the games, according to a survey of U.K. property owners by SpareRoom.co.uk. A recent search on the house-sharing website turned up more than 1,800 results for "Olympic lets" in London.

Some are seeking rents that can be described only as astronomical, even in an already-pricey city. In one ad posted in early July, a landlord with a two-bedroom apartment in Stratford — within walking distance of the Olympic Stadium in East London — is asking for $2,795 a week per room.

Then there are more creative options. One entrepreneurial London cabdriver has outfitted his vehicle with a foam mattress, a miniature refrigerator and even a teddy bear and is advertising what he calls a "hail-a-hotel" for about $77 a night on Wimdu.co.uk.

It's not clear whether the games will result in a net tourism gain for the U.K. The country's national tourism agency, Visit Britain, has said it expects 30.7 million overseas visitors this year — up slightly from the number of visitors in all of 2010 at 29.6 million and "in line" with expected 2011 figures. Officials, who point to the lagging worldwide economy, also say they are working to counteract short-term declines in overseas visitors as would-be tourists avoid the city during the games.

The specter of snarled traffic has been enough to spook many commuters in this city of nearly 8 million. Officials have set up a website devoted to transport updates and pitched information tents throughout London. During the Olympic Games and the subsequent Paralympic Games, the city will be operating a special "Olympics route network," along which roadwork will be suspended and certain lanes reserved for athletes.

While some Londoners are skipping town to avoid the pandemonium, others say they hope to enjoy the festivities — from the convenience of a TV set.

"If the commute is too bad, I will either come in later in the day or just work from home," said Jody Moore, a business consultant who lives in southwest London but works in the central part of the city.

Ms. Moore, who looks forward to watching the gymnastics portion of the games, said it's too early to assess the city's planning efforts.

"I think a lot of it will depend on their ability to react to anything unexpected," she said. "Do they have enough volunteers, tube drivers, buses, etc., if certain areas get too busy?"

Of course, the weather is one thing city officials can't control.

"It's going to rain — I'll tell you that," Graham Last, an accountant from Kent, predicted on a recent rainy afternoon.

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