© 2024 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Thousands Of British Troops On Olympic Guard Duty

A British military missile battery, part of the Olympic security plan, is seen from an aircraft in south London. Organizers have been criticized for relying on a military presence for the 2012 Games.
Alastair Grant
A British military missile battery, part of the Olympic security plan, is seen from an aircraft in south London. Organizers have been criticized for relying on a military presence for the 2012 Games.

When a private firm failed to meet its promise of providing enough guards for the Olympics, the British military was called in to "mind the gap" in security.

But even though the government is bringing in those troops — as well as RAF Typhoon combat jets, surface-to-air missiles on rooftops, and an aircraft carrier on the River Thames — organizers say it will still look like the Summer Games, and not war games.

"I don't think anyone will go feeling anything other than safe and secure and probably quite charmed by what they witness," London Olympics organizing chief Sebastian Coe said Friday.

Two weeks before the games begin, Coe found himself dealing with the revelations that 3,500 British troops, some of them just back from tours in Afghanistan, will step in to help guard Olympic venues.

The private security contractor, G4S, failed in its promise to deliver more than 10,000 security guards — and didn't let anyone know until the last moment.

'The Rubber Hit The Road'

Until this week, Coe had sailed on a cascade of positive news.

"It's only when the rubber hits the road that you understand some of things that you need (to) address," Coe told reporters. "When the rubber hit the road and we looked at some of the retention, some of the recruitment... we made a very quick and very robust and prudent and judicious decision to act as we did."

The problems started to emerge only a few weeks ago. G4S failed to provide enough security guards when the Olympic Stadium and the aquatics center were "locked down" — a process that puts the tightest security in place ahead of the Summer Games.

The government started asking questions, and as late as Wednesday, G4S was suggesting it could still deliver. By Thursday, Home Secretary Theresa May was facing lawmakers outraged about the debacle and the decision to send in more troops, bringing the total number of armed forces involved in the project to 17,000.

In a statement released late Friday, G4S said it had encountered "significant difficulties in processing applicants in sufficient numbers through the necessary training, vetting and accreditation procedures."

"We are grateful for the additional military support," the statement read. "We do not underestimate the impact on the military personnel and their families and express our appreciation to them."

Safeguarding The Olympics

Security has been a critical concern for the Olympics, especially after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches died in a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Games. British authorities have planned for a threat level of "severe" at the London Games, meaning an attack is "highly likely."

London itself has also been touched by terrorism, when four suicide bombers killed 52 commuters on July 7, 2005 — the day after London was awarded the Olympics. And a huge international media presence makes the Olympics a prime target for any terrorist intent on wreaking havoc on live events broadcast worldwide.

Some security analysts suggested the 2012 Games might be better off by having troops on duty, rather than guards whose training might be substandard.

While the issue of the guards involves securing the venues, critics wondered whether the tone of overall security for the games will shift. National Olympics security coordinator Chris Allison wants it to be remembered as a "blue" games — dominated by police — rather than a "khaki" games, with the militarized look of the Beijing Games four years ago.

No Impact On Athletes, Coe Says

"We still have many, many more G4S people on this site at this very moment than the military," Coe said during a tour of the new water polo arena. He also suggested that athletes would be unconcerned about the changes.

"I've never seen athletes of any level, either from university sport or Olympic finalists, breaking off their warm-up routines to go and have their photographs taken with the military," he said.

Coe vowed that the reputation of the London Games would not be harmed.

"Good competitors never worry about what the crowd is doing," said the former track star who owns two Olympic gold medals. "I've never ever heard, listened, [or] seen people sitting in the stand when I was a competitor. That's something that goes on out there. We just deliver regardless of who is there."

The Question Of Money, And Fines

It's not the first time the security mix needed to be changed for games that are costing the British taxpayer 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion). The total cost of securing the venues climbed to more than 553 million pounds ($862 million) — not including money for the police or the new cost added by the soldiers.

Critics have been demanding that G4S face fines; Prime Minister David Cameron said companies who don't deliver on their contracts should "be pursued for that money."

G4S appeared to bow to those demands late Friday, saying it accepted responsibility "for the additional cost of the increased military deployment" as a result of its failure to fully staff the games. It said it was bracing itself for an estimated loss of up to 50 million pounds ($78 million) on the contract.

It may not just be Britain's military scrambling to fill the shortfall. The U.K.'s Channel 4 News said that 12 different police forces were drawing up contingency plans in case G4S failed to meet its targets, saying that officers were worried that deadlines for securing venues before the games might be missed. The broadcaster didn't cite a source for its information.

Hiring Process Is Faulted

G4S, which has more than 657,000 employees operating in more than 125 countries, blamed the problems on vetting and recruiting staff. But comments from apparent applicants posted online painted a picture of broad-based mismanagement, disorganization and even squandered opportunities.

Potential guards took to the company's Olympics Facebook page to plead for information about where their accreditation passes and uniforms were. Others wondered when they would get their shifts, and why they had been vetted and approved but had not received any more details on when to turn up, or how they would be employed.

Applicant Jimmy Schofield, 32, said he had been bogged down in the hiring process since March.

"I feel like pulling my hair out," he said. "All I want to do is work. I turned down job offers, because I was told I would be working at the Olympics."

Some potential guards said they were angry over having been vetted and qualified, but never received marching orders — only to learn that the armed forces would be called in. Others had been vetted but still needed training.

As early as last year, Britain's National Audit Office warned that "the need for additional manpower has also produced a significant recruitment challenge."

"They over-extended themselves," said Peter Fussey, author of Securing and Sustaining the Olympic City, and an expert on security and the Olympics. "This was very foreseeable."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.