'Mad' London braces for its Olympic moment

The cabbies are mad, Heathrow is jammed and border agents are threatening to strike during the Olympic Games. Not to worry, says Tom Parry, London knows how to throw a big party.

Amid fears over security and strikes, London gets ready to host the world

London cabbies park their taxis cabs at the junction of Whitehall and Parliament Square on Tuesday, snarling traffic all over the city. (Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

Heathrow wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

Arriving in London after being away for nearly a year, I was prepared for the worst.

Heathrow, after all, is the busiest airport in Europe and is hectic at the best of times.

Long, frustrating queues at customs are par for the course, and recent press articles and blogs on travel sites have been full of horror stories and suggesting three-hour waits at a minimum.

Earlier this week, hundreds of London cabbies blocked a central intersection to protest against their exclusion from Olympics-dedicated traffic lanes, and their action spilled over to most of the city's biggest arteries.

An American track team found themselves lost on a bus on the road from Heathrow for four hours. "Not a good impression London," tweeted hurdler Kerron Clement, a silver medallist at the Beijing Games.

With an army of athletes, officials and sports fans descending on the capital for next week's Olympic Games, I figured I should pack a lunch for the achingly slow shuffle through British customs.

I got through in five minutes. And my bag was the second one to arrive on the luggage carousel.

Not a bad start, I thought. The driver who met me at the airport, however, assured me things would soon get worse. Heathrow and all of London, he said, would soon be "mad."

It's fair to say that is the consensus here. With just a week to go before the opening ceremonies, London is gearing up for the biggest party in the world.

But it’s also bracing for all the chaos that goes with hosting the Summer Olympics, an event guaranteed to bolster national pride but also fray nerves, particularly in a city that already moves at a frenzied pace.

Drivers are grumbling about the designated "Olympic lanes" on London streets, choking off roadways and creating grinding gridlock. City officials are urging people to keep their cars out of central London during the Games.

Public transit users have been warned they should expect heavy congestion on the city's already crowded Underground.

Add to all that concerns over security and the announcement by border guards and some railway workers that they intend to go on strike during the Games and you can see why the Olympic planners are also getting more than a little anxious.

Even the weather has been a concern. The UK is shivering through one of its dreariest summers in ages. Fingers are crossed the sun will come out in time for the big event.

Olympic officials, of course, have been planning this project for years. Legions of volunteers have been enlisted. The army has been called in to beef up security, after the private security company announced at the last minute it wasn't able to find and train enough people to do the job it had been contracted for.

Cruise ships have been docked near the Olympic site to house drivers and workers tasked with making sure the Games go smoothly.

A normal day at Heathrow, May 2012. (Reuters)

And for all the worries about what could go wrong, Londoners appear, at least outwardly, to be embracing the Games.

Pubs are decorated with Union Jacks to stir patriotism and draw in beer-loving sports fans. The Olympic logo is everywhere. The only place to see more big rings on display would be a bridal show or hula hoop competition.

There have been hiccups and headaches along the way and there will, no doubt, be more.

The fact is, though, London loves a party. And the city that is home to the pomp and ceremony of the Royal Family knows how to put on a big show.

This one, though, is the biggest of them all. And the question now is whether it all goes smoothly — Welcome to Heathrow, fellow passengers — or does it all go a bit mad.