The World's Nicest Army

There's never been an Olympics where men and women in uniform were as visible as in London, and so damn friendly

It’s not a shock to see the military at the Olympics—at least since 9/11. In Athens, the venues were guarded by scowling men with submachine guns. In Beijing, organizers dressed Chinese forces in track suits and had them stow their weapons for a friendlier feel—until an unspecified threat caused them to position armoured personnel carriers and rocket launchers outside the gates halfway through the Games.

But there’s never been an Olympics where men and women in uniform were as visible as in London, and so damn friendly. After private security company G4S admitted its epic failure in the weeks leading up to the Summer Games, the government called out the troops in huge batches, ultimately deploying more than 18,000 personnel. It’s given the main Olympic Green in the East End a slightly strange feel—the military far outnumber the police, or even volunteers. (And as far as G4S goes, I’ve seen exactly one of their uniforms.) More like London in 1942 than 2012. However, no one is complaining.

The entry checkpoints, normally the worst part of the Olympics—think airport security a couple of days before Christmas—are functioning so efficiently that there’s rarely even a line. And the Paratroopers and Commandos, unarmed and adorned with snazzy purple London 2012 shoulder badges are the politest screeners in the world. “Good morning, sir. Right this way, please. We’ll have you on your way in a moment.” It takes longer to pull all the pens, keys, coins and phones out of one’s pockets than the pass through the metal detectors and X-ray machines. They do everything but salute you.

Today, Lord Sebastian Coe, chair of the London Organizing Committee said that military is doing so well that they will soon have a new duty—to fill the seats left empty at venues by corporate guests and dignitaries. (No shows are a perennial Olympic problem, especially for the early rounds of competition.) The British press—still waiting for the first home medal—is already sniffing about how bad this looks. But for the world’s best-mannered military, it’s surely a nice treat. And a far better posting than Afghanistan or Iraq.