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London riots lead to concerns for 2012 Olympics

Ian EvansThe Christian Science Monitor

The timing probably couldn’t have been much worse.

Almost a year to the day until the 2012 Olympics Games begin in London, the world was treated to images of rioters smashing storefronts and setting buildings ablaze in the capital and beyond.

Footage of looting, arson, and pitched battles with police dressed in riot gear played out on national and international televisions, raising questions about London’s reputation as safe and multicultural and one of the world's premier cities.

While Prime Minister David Cameron and senior ministers concentrated on quelling the last of the unrest in English cities, others such as business people and athletes are assessing the damage to the country’s reputation abroad and the impact on next summer’s Olympics.

Mr. Cameron, London mayor Boris Johnson, and the head of the Games' organizing committee Sebastian Coe have all been talking up the event and saying the riots will have little impact.

However their claims were undermined by the discovery that one of the rioters was 18-year-old Olympic ambassador Chelsea Ives, who was allegedly caught on camera throwing bricks at a Vodafone shop window at the height of the rioting in Enfield, north London. Her mother turned her into police after seeing footage of the riots, landing Ives in custody on two counts of burglary and throwing masonry at a police car. Her photo has been splashed across the British media.

Among those concerned about the reputation damage is marathon record holder and former Olympic team member Paula Radcliffe, who wrote on Twitter that the riots showed the "the country at its very worst."

In a separate post, she said: “In less than 1 year we welcome the world to London, and right now the world doesn't want to come.”

“A bloody disgrace, a minority of hooligans are sending out bad message for the rest of the country. World eyes 2012!" wrote Dame Kelly Holmes, a double Olympic champion, on Twitter. "Until we get discipline and respect brought back into our society, it won’t change.”

Big business was also indignant. Steve Ridgway, chief executive at Virgin Atlantic told the Financial Times, “It is very important that we do get on top of the situation in this country. … The world needs to realise that London is a great city – not least with the Olympics less than a year away.”

Much of the damage was directed at smaller high street shops, with looters helping themselves to goods and produce. Colin Stanbridge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the Monitor, “This could not have come at a worse time for London’s business community, with the capital’s firms already bearing the heavy cost of the continuing economic turmoil."

“At the peak of the tourist season and with only a year to go until the London 2012 Games, this really isn’t the image we want to present to the world,” he said.

The questions were not limited to the UK. In China, which staged the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, state-run Xinhua news agency wrote, “After the riots, the image of London has been severely damaged, leaving the people skeptical and worried about the public security situation during the London Olympics.”

Unfortunately for London, the riots coincided with a three-day visit of nearly 200 senior Olympic officials who were in the capital to discuss transportation and accommodation for athletes.

But despite the troubles, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee was reassuring about London's ability to host the Games. “Security at the Olympic Games is a top priority for the IOC. It is, however, directly handled by the local authorities, as they know best what is appropriate and proportionate. We are confident they will do a good job in this domain.”

Mr. Coe, himself a former Olympic gold medal winner, was defiant about the prospects for next summer’s Games.

“A lot of detailed work has taken place regarding security plans for the Games and we will continue to review them together with the Met Police and the Home Office over the coming year. Security has always been a priority for us and continues to be so," Coe said in a statement.

As London and other cities continue the clean up, City Hall and reputation experts are debating how to restore London’s reputation.

Nick Barron, deputy managing director at top public relations firm Edelman, says Mayor Boris Johnson should consider staging a public event, possibly a concert in Trafalgar Square, to show a better side of London than the riots did.

“We cannot shy away about what happened and that it was embarrassing for London seen from abroad. I would advise holding a concert where David Cameron and Boris Johnson could be united in showing London in a better light with a concert with leading artists," Mr. Barron says.

“I live in Lewisham, which was hit, but what I remember most was all the people who turned up the next day armed with brooms to clear up the mess. That’s the London I know and love and with a big foreign media presence in London, it’s the face we can show to the world – not just the rioting," he says. "I think a public event can begin to undo a lot of the negative pictures which have come out of London over the last few days.”