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Out with a bang: Britain bounces back to normal after Olympic glory

U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, foreground, relaxes as he waits to depart to the U.S. at the Games Terminal at Heathrow Airport London Monday Aug. 13, 2012 . The London 2012 Olympic Games closed Sunday. (AP Photo) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO INTERNET NO MAGS

LONDON - Basking in post-Olympic glory, Britain succumbed to reality Monday with commuters venturing back to work and Heathrow Airport bracing for one of its busiest days ever.

Some 116,000 people were expected to leave Monday from Heathrow, London's busiest hub, an exodus that includes some 6,000 athletes and Prime Minister David Cameron for his vacation. Heathrow usually handles some 95,000 passengers a day.

"The games were awesome," Tumua Anae, a 23-year-old Californian who won gold for the U.S. water polo team, said as she waited for a flight. "I have to say to Britain, you guys did a great job."

Heathrow opened a special Olympic terminal with 31 check-in desks to accommodate departing athletes and support staff.

The special terminal, designed like a park, was filled with iconic British items like a red phone booth and double-decker bus. Some Heathrow staff wore bearskin hats, much like the guards at Buckingham Palace. The terminal will go back to being a parking lot in three days.

"This terminal is cool. I was so shocked when we came in — there was grass and it looked like an English garden," said Lisa Ericson, a member of Sweden's sailing team.

Colin Matthews, chief executive of Heathrow operator BAA, said it was important to give the athletes a great farewell.

In the months leading up to the Olympics, the government was criticized for failing to provide enough staff at immigration points, causing massive backlogs.

Some travellers, however, were pleasantly surprised Monday.

"I didn't expect just to whizz through like this," said Sashi Singh, a retired businessman returning to his home in Fiji after coming to London for the games.

In a telephone call late Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama praised Cameron on the country's hosting of the Olympics. More than 26.3 million people in the United Kingdom watched the closing ceremony Sunday night, compared with 26.9 million who watched the opening.

Traffic also was lighter than normal Monday — many commuters steered clear of London during the games after a campaign to use public transport.

Some taxi drivers said they were ecstatic that the games were over and they could not use special lanes that had been reserved for athletes and officials.

"It's been brutal," said Shafiq Arjaz, a 43-year-old cab driver.

A survey of business traffic commissioned by trade body UKinbound during the London games found that 82 per cent of tourism-oriented businesses suffered lost business versus the same period in 2011. Two-thirds said the numbers of tourists fell more than 10 per cent.

But Visa, the only credit card accepted at the Olympics, said that international visitors to Britain spent more than 450 million pounds ($705 million) on their cards during the first week of the games, up by 8 per cent over the same time last year.

Around 12.7 million pounds were spent on Visa cards in London restaurants last week, an increase of almost 20 per cent on a year ago.

London's eccentric mayor Boris Johnson said London had defied the skeptics.

"We welcomed huge numbers of visitors to our city — 300,000 international, 600,000 domestic, 5.5 million day-trippers (and) occupancy of hotels was 84 per cent, double that of Beijing or Sydney," Johnson told reporters Monday.

He also said the city's public transport coped well. London's underground use was up 30 per cent, its overground commuter train called the DLR was up 100 per cent and the bike hire scheme broke a record with 46,000 bikes rented on a single day.

The Olympic Park, visited by more than 5 million people over the last 17 days, was eerily deserted Monday.

The main stadium was blocked off by metal barriers, concession stands closed, the world's biggest McDonald's empty. Small groups of construction workers scurried about in small vehicles, working to transform the venues for use in the Paralympics, which will run Aug. 29 to Sept. 9.

The park will be closed to the public until then — and for almost a year afterwards, while some venues will be torn down and others modified. It will open in stages from next summer as the 227-hectare (560-acre) Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Games organizers say most of the venues' structures will not change for the Paralympics, but they will get new signs — with the Paralympic emblem replacing the Olympic rings — as well as changes to the playing fields and seating and better accessibility for disabled athletes and spectators.

The thousands of Paralympic athletes from around the world who will stay at the Athletes Village include 1,800 wheelchair users.

Two new venues are opening for the Paralympics — Eton Manor, a wheelchair tennis stadium and a road cycling venue at Brands Hatch, south of London.

A total of 17 venues around the country — including the beach volleyball sandpit at Horseguards Parade in central London — are being dismantled.

"For two weeks, we saw a lot of people — all of a sudden it just went off, like that," said park worker Francis Joseph, snapping his fingers.

The Olympics were hailed as a security success even though private contractor G4S failed to provide enough staff for the games. In the end, the military stepped in and provided some 3,500 personnel to make up for the shortfall.

The company has donated 2.5 million pounds ($3.9 million) to the military, which will go to charities.

The donation is in addition to what the company will end up owing the government for the extra manpower. The company expects to lose between 35 and 50 million pounds ($54 and $78 million) on the Olympic contract.

Meanwhile, some 250 people were arrested during the games, but there were no major security incidents.

"I'm very proud that we didn't have anything serious to deal with, but that was because of a lot of hard work done by a lot of people," said Chris Allison, the Olympics Security Coordinator.

Some 7,000 police officers and 5,000 G4S workers will be on hand to guard the Paralympics.

Carmelina Moscato, a member of the Canadian team which took bronze in the women's soccer, was headed back to Toronto.

"It's like being in dreamland. I could not have asked for more."


Associated Press writers David Stringer, Jill Lawless, Martin Benedyk and Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this report from London.

News from © The Associated Press, 2012
The Associated Press

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