LONDON, England ● Better known for their role in global conflicts and emergencies, the British military is now being acclaimed for defusing a crisis closer to home after stepping in to help guard the Olympic Games.
While competing athletes may have wowed the crowds at Olympic venues, the soldiers, sailors and airmen of Britain’s armed forces have won over spectators with their smiles, cheeky quips and friendly banter.
Many of the 18,000 servicemen and women on duty had to sacrifice leave and holidays to screen visitors and guard the sports arenas, a big departure from their usual role fighting insurgents, defusing bombs or patrolling Afghan villages.
Although some have grumbled privately about their living conditions – some have been housed in crowded quarters for the duration of the Games – their cheerful demeanour has proved a big hit with the public.
“We have had a great response from our spectators on the service provided by our armed forces and I want each and every one of you to know the nation is proud of you and grateful to you,” London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe told service personnel during a visit to one of their bases on Wednesday.
The military had always been tapped to play a role in the Olympics, but when security firm G4S revealed two weeks before the start of the Games that it would not be able to provide enough guards, the government asked the armed forces to step in.
That raised fears that the presence of large numbers of personnel in military fatigues would make the Games appear too militarised and scare visitors off.
But those concerns have proved unfounded, and instead, the soldiers have built up a rapport with the public and their professionalism is viewed by many as comforting.
Until recently Britain’s armed forces were rarely seen in uniform in public unless on active service, partly because of security risks posed by Northern Irish guerrillas.
But that threat has dwindled since a 1998 peace deal with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the hundreds of deaths in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have earned the military greater affection in the eyes of the public.
Factory worker Stephen Fennel said the army’s politeness helped calm nerves.
“The British army has a great history of manners. One of the reasons why the British have manners is because the British army traditionally has had manners,” he said, as he walked by the main Olympic venue in east London.
With the Olympics considered a potential target for militants such as al Qaeda, security is rigorous, with checks similar to those at airports, where tempers often fray.
“I thought the army were really professional and had a light touch. I trust the army more than the police, and definitely more than private security firms,” said Olympics spectator Philippa Ward, a charity programme manager.
There have even been suggestions that the military should take on a similar role at other events in future.
It’s not just been outside the stadium where the military has been drafted in to help. Embarrassed by empty seats at venues, it was to the military that Olympic organisers turned again, and the sight of uniformed service personnel in the seats cheering has helped to pump up the mood.
Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General David Richards, said working at the Games was a good way for the public to get to see the armed forces, and for the troops to gain experience dealing with the public outside of war zones.
He also thanked soldiers for postponing their holidays.
“As a soldier myself, I know that service demands often come before personal plans. Many sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines have delayed time with friends and family this summer to help support the London 2012 Games,” Richards said.
“Her majesty’s armed forces are renowned for being the most professional in the world. Together with our athletes we have helped the UK showcase the best of Britain,” he added.
Many army staff clearly have been enjoying the Games, joking with visitors and adding to the festival atmosphere in the stands when allocated spare seats.
A British soldier at the Olympic Park wearing the military’s ubiquitous camouflage gear and a beret, who gave his name as Sush, said the atmosphere had been “very positive”.
“People are coming up to say hi. It’s been great,” he said.
Their participation has also boosted the morale of some of their number on the British Olympic team.
Chris Sherrington, a royal marine who served in Iraq, said it had been a huge spur to see his colleagues shouting support during his fights in the men’s heavyweight judo competition.
While most defeated competitors left the arena looking deflated, Sherrington stopped, grinned and saluted them before marching off, military style, to roars of delight.
“It’s great having the boys here and the fact they have come all this way, I had to give a salute as a thank you,” he told..
Not all the thousands of soldiers are pleased about the unexpected deployment.
One soldier who declined to be named said: “I’m not a happy chappie at the moment. I’m meant to be on holiday — My family is in Spain. I’m not there because G4S didn’t do their job.
“If I could choose to be anywhere in the world, it certainly wouldn’t be here.”