Soggy summer no threat to London Olympic spirit
LONDON (Reuters) - A quarter of a million rain ponchos, an army of volunteers equipped with umbrellas and rain jackets, and five dedicated weather forecasters - it must be a British Olympics.
Planning any outdoor event during the unpredictable British summer, renowned for its potential to throw up more rainy spells than sunshine, requires drawing up contingency plans and keeping a close eye on the weather.
Multiply that challenge for several million spectators, 70,000 volunteers and 10,500 of the world's top athletes, and then you have some idea of the challenge facing organisers of the London Olympics.
The United Kingdom's national weather forecaster, the Met office, has a dedicated five-person team working on Olympic weather predictions, but said it was too early to forecast with any accuracy conditions for the July 27-August 12 Games.
However, organisers are confident bad weather would not disrupt their plans, while the love-hate relationship between the British public and their country's weather looked likely to ensure solid support for the athletes.
"By definition, being British you have no choice but to prepare for the weather," said Debbie Jevans, director of sport for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).
Jevans is responsible for making sure the sporting venues across the UK run smoothly. She is not losing any sleep over the possibility of wet weather in the middle of summer.
"It doesn't keep me awake at night. Clearly if you gave me the choice of rain or no rain, you'd rather have no rain and that's for the spectators as much as anything else," she said.
"(But) we've known from day one when we looked across the sports that they will happen whether it's raining or not, and so the plans have always included that."
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
Those plans have been extensive.
At Greenwich Park, Britain's oldest royal park that also forms part of a world heritage site, specialist consultants have been drafted in to make sure the venue is up to the challenge of hosting the equestrian events.
"We've been working on the wet areas in the park for the past two and a bit years now," said Lee Penrose, project manager at the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI).
Their work has focused on the 5.7 kilometre cross-country course that is seen as the most exposed of the equestrian events to bad weather conditions.
STRI said over one hundred million half-centimeter "thin but really, really deep" holes had been bored into the course every three weeks to ensure there was no standing water on the turf.
In addition, up to 40 staff armed with mechanical water-removing devices and last-resort hand pumps will be on site for the July 30 event - just in case.
"You can never really plan for all events but notwithstanding a biblical-type flood I think the cross country course is going to run pretty well on the day," Penrose said.
The cancellation of the high-profile Badminton Horse Trials event after the UK's wettest April in more than a century underscored the need for meticulous preparation.
The wet weather already experienced this year has also proved a blessing in some respects. Heavy rain throughout some of the test events held across London gave planners the chance to tweak their preparations.
However, knowing that the sport will go ahead regardless of the weather may be cold comfort for the spectators.
At the eastern end of the Olympic Park the high stands of the Riverbank arena that hosts the hockey competition are uncovered and exposed to elements. A test event held in early May left some spectators chilled to the bone.
"It was good, so I'm looking forward to the Olympics events, but the weather will play a big part," said Morag Campbell, an admin worker based in London who watched the test events and holds tickets for several hockey sessions during the Olympics.
"On the Saturday night my feet were frozen - by the time I got home they were literally blue!"
For some, wet weather may even prove a bonus.
Part of the event planning has involved kitting out the stores inside the venues with enough wet weather gear to keep spectators dry and happy - around 250,000 red, white and blue ponchos will be on standby in case the heavens open.
In addition, stalls inside the venues will sell Olympic-branded umbrellas for between £14 and £20 ($22-32).
Storekeepers around the Westfield mall that lies adjacent to the Olympic Park say business inside the centre will be brisk, and that rain will push more shoppers inside.
"It'll be rammed," said Oliver Winterborne, a sales assistant working in Westfield. "You can always tell if it's rainy from how busy it is in here."
Several store managers said they were taking on extra staff for the Olympic period and some based in the mall's outdoor shopping streets were expecting an improvement in trade as crowds are funnelled past their shops.
Regardless of whether conditions turn sour over the two-week period, at least one venue is expecting a downpour.
Danny Boyle, the artistic director behind the Games' opening ceremony on July 27, said he was seeking to capture the spirit of the British countryside by bringing an elaborate set of meadows, rivers and live animals into the Olympic stadium.
"You begin with a certain kind of philosophy, which is, you think what were we, where have we come from, what's our heritage ... what are we now and where are we going?" Boyle said at a media briefing that unveiled part of the ceremony.
Presumably that vision includes a little rain - a model of the opening scene featured clouds made of cotton wool, and Boyle promised to provide artificial rain, delivering a controlled rain shower to kick off the Games.
($1 = 0.6354 British pounds)
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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