You would be excused if you were to think you were in a war zone instead of a 17-day celebration of friendly rivalry and peaceful competition. But the British are taking no chances for this year's summer Olympic Games, which begin in London in exactly 20 days. They will deploy a security force of some 48,000 personnel, including 13,500 from the army, navy and air force - more than the entire 9500-member British mission still serving in Afghanistan. The security efforts include a Royal Navy helicopter carrier stationed on the Thames at Greenwich, with RAF planes stationed at Northolt near London for the first time since World War Two.
Each day during the games there will be 12,500 police officers deployed at various Olympic sites in addition to more than 16,000 private security guards and volunteers. Although civilian controllers will direct air traffic over the capital, the ministry of defence will be supervising. And there's more - a so-called "safe zone" has been established, surrounded by an 18-kilometre electrified fence patrolled by special security agents and 55 teams of attack dogs. The military is setting up several surface-to-air missile sites on the roofs of apartment buildings near the main games venues; the skies will be patrolled by unmanned drone aircraft and the ground people will be able to deploy a diabolical device that can disperse crowds rapidly by delivering a powerful blast of sound no one can stand for more than a few seconds.
The organisers expect as many as a million visitors for the games, and some 300,000 of these are expected to converge on Olympic Park at peak times each day. All these extra visitors will add considerably to the strain on the nerves at entry points like Heathrow Airport, which is already under criticism for its long lines and not enough staff to screen everybody quickly.
The authorities can be forgiven for their jitteriness - exactly seven years ago, as London was announced as the host city, four suicide bombers blew themselves up aboard three underground trains and a bus, killing 52 commuters. Nor can we forget Munich in 1972, when a militant Palestinian group known as Black September killed eleven Israeli athletes and coaches; and Atlanta, when a bomb at the 1996 games took the life of a spectator and injured more than 100 other people.
But authorities have also committed excesses of their own. Police in Mexico City slaughtered students at the 1968 games, police in Los Angeles swept up alleged gang members in 1984, and Chinese officials displaced large numbers of citizens at the last games in Beijing. And London is probably the most scrutinised city in the world - it has more surveillance cameras per person than anywhere else, more so since the attacks of July 7, 2005.
Development is why Games are held
Every time a city bids to host the Olympics, we hear soaring rhetoric about how it will provide lasting benefits for the residents of the city, particularly those who reside close to the facilities. London becomes the first city to hold the modern games three times - the others being 1908 and 1948. It will employ a mixture of new, existing and historic facilities as well as temporary sites, including such famous locations as Hyde Park and the Horse Guards Parade. The main focus will be a new Olympic Park built on a former industrial site in east London.
One of the big beneficiaries of the games is London's transit system. There have been numerous improvements in facilities, including the expansion of the Overground http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Overground East London Line http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_London_Line , upgrades to the Docklands Light Railway http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Docklands_Light_Railway and the North London Line, as well as the introduction of a new high-speed rail service called "Javelin" using new "bullet" trains. Last month Transport for London inaugurated a £25-million cable car 50 metres above the River Thames between the Greenwich peninsula and the royal docks. It can carry 2500 passengers an hour and is intended to reduce travel times drastically. The Olympic Park will be serviced by ten separate railway lines with a capacity of 240,000 passengers per hour, and the organising committee planned that 90 per cent of the venues will be served by at least three types of public transport.
The planners for the London games toured several other former Olympic sites to learn what to do, and perhaps even more important - what not to do. The most depressing lesson was provided by Athens, birthplace of the Olympics and host city in 2004, a century after the first modern games. Organisers built 22 venues and sadly, only one remains - the badminton stadium, which has been converted into a theatre. All the others have fallen into disrepair and security guards have to patrol them to prevent vandalism. Likewise, many of the sites from the Beijing games four years ago are shuttered for lack of use.
But other former Olympic cities have fared quite well, like Seoul, which continued to see an inflow of foreign investment after the games. They also provided the added bonus of turning a spotlight on the undemocratic ways of the government of the day. Demonstrations against the regime ended in an opening up of the political system and resulted in the vibrant democratic culture thriving in that country. The games also gave amateur sport a huge fillip and has made South Korea into an Asian sport power.
The games in Los Angeles and Atlanta are now remembered more for their economic success than for what they added to the sporting legacy. Atlanta, which in 1996 was known for troubles in transporting athletes and visitors from venue to venue, ended without costing taxpayers anything. A baseball team now uses the main stadium while Georgia Tech University has converted the aquatics centre to include an indoor running track and basketball courts for students. Thousands of students also live in the former Olympic village.
And Barcelona, site of the 1992 games, stands out as a shining success.The city has a new port and the games transformed it into a centre for commerce. But perhaps its greatest legacy is the effect of those games on Spanish sports. A generation of children have been inspired to get into sports and have benefited from world-class facilities and coaching of the highest calibre.
As Usain Bolt and his team-mates burnish Jamaica's reputation as a serious source of world-beating athletes, we have to bear in mind that sport is merely the excuse for holding the games. Underlying these events, now held like clockwork every four years - staggered between the summer and winter games - is a laser-like focus on the economic benefits each set of games can bring. And in the case of London, you can be sure the security and law-enforcement services are taking advantage of the contests to procure as much new equipment and expansion of their role and influence as they can.
The motto for the games is Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger. We will see an abundance of that on the playing fields, arenas and water locations, but the developers and security people will also be demonstrating those qualities in their own particular ways.