LONDON -- The opening ceremony is still 11 days away, but for many in London, the Olympics really got started Monday.
Heathrow Airport had its busiest day ever as thousands of athletes—from Dutch beach volleyball players to South Korean gymnasts—landed with their javelins, bicycles and sails, and moved smoothly through customs.
Motorists grappled with new traffic lanes painted with the Olympic rings and reserved for only official vehicles and dignitaries. At least one American athlete tweeted that his bus got lost on the way from Heathrow.
Smart-looking sailors guarded the gates to Olympic Park, looking so cheerful that visitors would never guess they had been pulled off leave only a few days ago to fill an embarrassing security gap when a private contractor failed to provide enough personnel.
And as the Olympic flame made its way beside the seaside in the resort of Brighton, organizers revealed dramatic plans for its arrival later this week in London. How’s this for an entrance: A Royal Marine carrying the torch will slide down a rope from a helicopter into the Tower of London.
Monday’s excitement all started at Heathrow.
Beneath giant Olympic rings, athletes from 50 nations touched down in what is being described as Britain’s biggest peacetime transport challenge—the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk clearly being excluded from the calculation.
There was a feeling of Olympian scale—the airport was handling some 236,955 arrivals and departures Monday, breaking the record of 233,562, set on July 31, 2011.
Heathrow usually handles 100,000-110,000 arrivals a day, but this swelled to 121,239 arrivals Monday, many of them Olympic VIPs. Another big arrival day will be July 25, two days before the opening ceremony.
"We’ve got into our battle rhythm," said a cheerful Nick Cole, the head of planning for the games at Heathrow before the arrivals. A former army officer, he has been preparing for this operation for years and brought in reinforcements to make sure all went smoothly.
Heathrow put half of its 1,000 volunteers on duty and created special teams to deal with the oversized gear of the athletes.
A black T-shirted choir outside Terminal 5 belted out Adele’s smash hit, "Rolling in the Deep," but many were in too much of a hurry to listen.
For once, arriving passengers didn’t shuffle around in seemingly endless immigration queues waiting to enter Britain. Hundreds of agents were on the job to ease the long lines that have plagued the airport for months. Police and their dogs were out in force. Rows of VIP buses whisked teams and coaches to the athletes village in east London.
Everywhere, excited future Olympians were ready for their moment in the London, um, rain. (Even locals have given up hopes that the sun will shine.)
Elisa Liyanage, 14, of France, made a special trip to Heathrow just to hunt for Olympians’ autographs. The track and field enthusiast, who was in England visiting a friend, bounced up and down with delight as she reeled off how many she’d gotten to sign her notebook, including American hurdler Jeff Porter and former Somali middle distance runner Abdi Bile.
"It’s fantastic!" she squealed.
On the other side of the arrivals barrier, Jose Garcia Reyes, the mission chief of Guatemala’s Olympic team, posed for photos with a big blue-and-white flag—to the obvious annoyance of Heathrow staff, who kept trying to shoo him and his teammates out of the way.
"Uno mas, uno mas!"—"One more, one more!" the Guatemalans protested as they snapped away.
Reyes said it was his second Olympics—he’d been to Beijing in 2008 -- but his first time as chief.
"Yes, I’m excited," he said.
Others were less than impressed by their first impressions. Bus drivers taking the Americans and the Australians struggled to find their destinations. Two-time world 400-meter hurdles champion Kerron Clement was less than complimentary.
"Um, so we’ve been lost on the road for 4hrs. Not a good first impression London," the American tweeted.
U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky said that while there were a few glitches, everyone made it safely and got on with preparing for the most important competition of their lives.
Officials noted that while a few buses might have gotten lost temporarily, hundreds of others managed to get from Heathrow to east London just fine. London Mayor Boris Johnson ruffled his blond hair and urged everyone to chill out.
"Clearly they would have had even more of an opportunity to see even more of the city than they might otherwise have done," he said of the passengers on buses that took a longer route to the Olympic Park.
Transportation issues for Olympic VIPs were supposed to have been eased by the rings-emblazoned "Games Lane" that opened Monday along the vital M4 highway into central London from Heathrow.
More highway lane closures are coming next week, and motorists have been warned about them for months. Still, many were clearly caught off-guard by the Heathrow closure and cars backed up near the airport for miles (kilometers).
While the athletes were arriving, Britain’s politicians were fighting over a security fiasco that has seen soldiers filling in gaps in security.
Home Secretary Theresa May said the government was not to blame, telling lawmakers that security contractor G4S had "repeatedly assured us that they would overshoot their target" for recruiting staff and only admitted last week that it had a problem in getting enough personnel.
Some 3,500 more troops were deployed to fill the gaps, and officers from nine police forces have been called in as short-term replacements for some venues for the July 27-Aug. 12 games.
G4S promised that the situation "is being rectified over the coming days," but West Midlands Police Federation chairman Ian Edwards said the situation was "chaos, absolute chaos."
IOC President Jacques Rogge praised British organizers for acting quickly to bring in the extra troops and said the heavy security presence at the games will "definitely not spoil the fun."
Rogge said it was not uncommon for host cities to face unexpected problems in the final stage of preparations and he said London had handled it well.
"What counts is the flexibility of the organizing committee and the government when something comes up, and I think they have been very flexible and very adaptive," he said.
With the countdown on for the Olympic flame’s arrival in London at the end of its 8,000-mile (12,900-kilometer) relay, planners let slip some details. High-profile torchbearers will include boxer Lennox Lewis and tennis player Tim Henman, and the flame won’t miss top sites such as Hampton Court, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace.
And Royal Marine Martyn Williams will bring it into the Tower of London in style, descending from the helicopter.
Williams was wounded in a road mine attack in Afghanistan in 2008. He recovered, overcoming huge odds.
The Marines are proud and Williams is thrilled about what is sure to be a spectacular moment.