Even in the best of times, whinging, as Britons call the persistent grousing that is their default response to life's challenges, is part of the national condition; but the upcoming Olympics has triggered a degree of distress with a different tone.
LONDON — While the world’s athletes limber up at the Olympic Park, Londoners are practicing some of their own favorite sports: complaining, expecting the worst and cursing the authorities.
Asked “What do you feel about the Olympics?” the other day, a random sampling of people gave answers that included bitter laughter; the words “fiasco,” “disaster” and “police state”; and detailed explanations of how they usually get to work, how that is no longer possible and how very unhappy that makes them.
“At the end of the day, it’s a pain in the backside,” Steve Rogers, a construction-site manager, said as he puffed on a cigarette near Victoria station the other day. Particularly painful, he said, were the subway plans (“absolute shambles”), the road closings (“complete nightmare”) and the fact that instead of creating construction jobs for Britons, the Olympics had provided work for “a bunch of Lithuanians, Romanians and Czechs.”
Even in the best of times, whinging, as Britons call the persistent low-grade grousing that is their default response to life’s challenges, is part of the national condition — as integral to the country’s character as its Eeyoreish attitude toward the weather (“Start Planning for Floods,” The Daily Mail advised recently).
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But even allowing for the traditional exaggeration, this degree of distress has a different tone.
“We’re looking at something above and beyond the solace and comfort that the British seek in gentle moaning,” said Dan Hancox, 31, a freelance writer. “The Olympics is actively antagonizing people.”
On Twitter, Hancox said that for Londoners, “it’s as if someone else is throwing a party in our house, with a huge entry fee, and we’re all locked in the basement.”
He elaborated in an interview.
“The traffic infrastructure has shut down to the point where we’re being prepared for a military conflict,” he said. “They’re telling businesses to stockpile goods, advising people to stay at home, don’t go anywhere, don’t travel on the Tube (subway), stay on your sofa — it’s like it’s for your own safety. We have an army on the streets. We’re being put on a war footing, and it’s not something, after 60 years of peacetime, that the British people are comfortable with.”
The media have added to the general sense of wretchedness with numerous we-told-you-so accounts of mishaps, glitches and grandiose plans gone awry.
“Tube commuters whose journey is delayed by the Olympics will not be able to reclaim the cost of their travel,” reported the Evening Standard, “despite dire warnings of having to wait 30 minutes to board a train.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail, whose unofficial motto appears to be “What Fresh Hell Is This?” has published articles noting that hundreds of thousands of tickets are still unsold, that no one wants to watch women play soccer and that some of the paths for the mountain-bike competition will not be finished in time.
“Security Shambles Could Cause Chaos for Spectators,” the paper said this week, next to an article with the headline “London’s Transport System Fails Again.”
Many Londoners believe they are getting the worst parts of the Olympics — the cost, the hassle, the officials telling them not to do things or go places — without any of the benefits. The security company hired by the government at huge expense proved to be wildly incompetent; the Olympic brand managers have made it clear that no one, apart from official sponsors, will be allowed to appear to capitalize on the Games.
“It’s like living in a police state,” said a business owner, explaining that her company had wanted to start a social-media campaign tied to the Olympics but had been warned by lawyers that it would be prosecuted and fined if it used the word “Olympics.”
“That’s why you don’t see any references to the Games in shop windows or on the streets; people are too scared,” she said.
Also: What if it does not stop raining? Even amid the wettest summer since records began, characterized by deluges and floods, officials keep saying they hope the rain will go away before the Games begin.
There really is no contingency plan; the Olympic Stadium, where the Opening Ceremony is to take place, has no roof.
Sebastian Coe, chairman of the Games, said this week that some of the Olympic sites outside London were “waterlogged,” and he urged spectators to wear raincoats and rubber boots.
Should the bad weather continue, even the beach-volleyball players will be allowed to change out of their bikinis — one of the things that many spectators appear to like best about them — and into “long pants and/or tops,” officials said.
“At the risk of sounding a little bit like a father about to issue their kids off on an Outward Bound trip,” Coe told reporters, “let me make the obvious point that we are a northern European country.”
Walking near Victoria station, Linda Vaughn, 68, said she was bewildered by the bombardment of seemingly contradictory messages: Welcome to the Olympics, Now Please Go Away.
“We keep getting told to ‘get ahead of the Games,’ ” she said, referring to the city’s program for persuading people to make alternative travel plans. “But it’s still a mystery where we’re supposed to go, especially because nothing moves in London on the best of days.”