A new track record was set today in London, when a bus carrying weary US athletes from Heathrow airport to the Olympic Village took four hours – twice as long as the world record for the Marathon, a similar distance.
Kerron Clement, a Olympic champion hurdler, was on board the Spanish-made bus. “We’ve been lost on the road for 4hrs,” he tweeted plaintively as the hapless bus driver tried to find his way to Stratford. “Athletes are sleepy, hungry and need to pee … Not a good first impression London.”
As sportsmen and women took almost as long to make their way across the capital as they had to fly halfway around the world, the host city began shakily in the most punishing 2012 event of all: the Olympic image hurdles.
All eyes had been on Heathrow, which was expecting the busiest day in its history – and the first of three “red days” before and after the Games. With immigration desks fully staffed, and hundreds of volunteers drafted in, the host airport was calm.
Simon Johansson, who flew into Terminal 5 from Stockholm, said: “I’d been told I’d be waiting for three or four hours. In fact, it was two or three minutes.”
The main baggage drama involved three sails belonging to the Australian sailing team who flew in on Qantas. The missing equipment was eventually tracked down in a cargo shed, where it had been taken in error because of its size, and re-united with the team.
Most Olympic opprobrium was directed at London’s creaking road network – and the Games Lanes that are exclusively for official vehicles and taxis, with a £130 fine for encroachment. They have been nicknamed “Zil lanes” after the Soviet practice of reserving road space in Moscow for Communist Party dignitaries in Zil limousines.
The first lane opened – or, depending on the driver’s status – closed – at 5.30am. For the ordinary motoring mortal, effectively it narrows the motorway from three lanes to two just one junction ahead of the normal bottleneck. It looks like a bus lane, but on the wrong side of the road, and without the usual accompaniment of cyclists and illegally parked cars.
After some rush-hour hold-ups as drivers grappled with the new concept, by lunchtime traffic was flowing smoothly on the motorway from Heathrow into central London.
But Londoners reacted furiously to the first experience of being excluded from road space. Charlie Mullins, founder of the central London firm Pimlico Plumbers, said “I've already told my guys if it's the difference between a £130 fine or letting up to 3,000 litres of water destroy someone's home, then it's a no-brainer. Your van becomes a Very Important Plumbing (VIP) vehicle. No question!”
Life is fast in the Zil lane, with drivers of many of the official vehicles seeming to think their status gives them immunity from the 60mph speed limit. While The Independent’s staff car paralleled the lane at a constant mile a minute, a number of vehicles with blacked-out windows sped past. Mercedes appears to be the favoured vehicle for racing through the July murk, followed closely by Audi in various metallic finishes.
Taxi drivers are also allowed to use the M4 lane. But this concession did little to dampen their fury at the way they have been sidelined from the Games. Michael Epstein from Watford, waiting for passengers at Paddington station, said: “The most frustrating thing is: had they cooperated with the cab trade, we would have worked with them to work out a scheme for every motorist, using our experience.”
Some bus drivers working by LOCOG to ferry competitors around appear well short of qualifying for the “Knowledge” of London that is required of taxi drivers, with an Australian contingent taken on an involuntary sightseeing tour that too three hours.
The organisers shrugged off criticism: "We have successfully completed a large number of bus journeys so far today,” said a spokeswoman for London 2012. “Whilst there may have been one or two journeys taking longer than planned, the vast majority were completed successfully."
But once the US hurdler, Kerron Clement, reached his destination, he cheered up: “Eating at the Olympic Village. Love the variety of food choices. African, Caribbean, Halal cuisine, India and Asian and of course McDonalds.”