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Olympic work goes on; London vows to be ready

LONDON – With the opening ceremony less than two weeks away, there’s a mad dash to the finish line at the Olympics and it has nothing to do with sprinters.

Hundreds of construction workers are toiling away inside the Olympic Park, laying cables, installing seats and adding the last layers of sparkle and polish to the venues.

There’s plenty to do.

“It’s looking a bit industrial, isn’t it?” said Chris Allen, a Londoner who came to the edge of the park to have a look. “I am not seeing England’s green fields. I do hope it’s going to look better.”

Shades of Athens, where chronic delays pushed workers to the brink to complete preparations in time for the games to start in 2004? Hardly, say London organizers who have prided themselves on finishing their massive construction project ahead of time and on budget. Things may look a bit messy now, they say, but all will be fine by the time the curtain goes up, on July 27, when the torch is lit.

“We’re not at the stage yet where we’re ready to flick the TV on,” said James Bulley, director of venues for organizing committee LOCOG. “The athletes aren’t ready to start competing yet, either. We want all our venues to look absolutely spectacular and pristine.

“The venues are ready. We’re now just doing the final setup for the games. We’re in a good place. We’re on track. There’s nothing I’m worried about.”

The last few weeks and days are all about hanging signs, fitting in remaining seats and completing landscaping.

“We will be mowing lawns right up to the opening ceremony,” LOCOG chairman Sebastian Coe said.

The last thing organizers need at this point is a crisis over readiness of the venues. At the moment, they’re coping with the fallout from a bungled contract by private security group G4S that forced the government to call in about 3,500 additional troops – many just returned from tours of duty in Afghanistan – to fill the shortfall.

A walk through the 560-acre Olympic Park in east London over the weekend, between yet another bout of rain showers, showed the scale of what remains to be done: a small army of workers, a sea of white tents, cranes, bulldozers, upturned tables and chairs, humming generators, television cables and rigging, a maze of fences.

Paul Gauger, who works for the tourism agency Visit Britain, surveyed a sad-looking wild flower patch near the aquatics center but took it in stride.

“This is all cosmetic stuff,” he said. “Look! There are some flowers growing over there!”

Bulley said the venues, after the construction and fit-out phases, are now in their final “bump-in” period. Television networks from around the world are moving in and cabling the venues for their cameras. LOCOG’s “look” teams are completing the signage and color schemes. Sports equipment is being shipped in.

“We’re still putting in seats at probably 10 or so venues,” Bulley said. “We’re putting in 1,000 seats a day.”

The “live site” in the Olympic Park – a grassy area where spectators can watch the events on a giant screen and listen to musical entertainment – is also unfinished.

“The bump-in looks quite messy, but you leave this to the last stages,” Bulley said. “We want to work these venues right up to when the athletes are coming in so they look as good as possible.”

Olympic Park isn’t the only place getting dolled up.

So is Horse Guards Parade, the ceremonial parade ground a stone’s throw from the Prime Minister’s Downing Street residence in central London, and site of beach volleyball. It’s a temporary venue which requires stands and 5,000 tons of sand brought in from a quarry south of London. Imagine a giant sandbox. Work started only late last month after the Trooping of the Color ceremony marking Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday.

Another key venue requiring special attention is ExCel. The conference and exhibition center in the Docklands area is being turned into multiple arenas hosting boxing, judo, table tennis, wrestling, fencing, taekwondo and weightlifting.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said it’s normal for host cities to face a flurry of last-ditch issues.

“It’s not peculiar for London,” Rogge said.

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