London making the most of chance to hold Games with proper notice
LONDON — So, after twice organizing the Summer Olympics on short notice, London finally has the chance to show the world what it can do with a proper timetable.
In 1908, London stepped in for Rome after Mount Vesuvius erupted two years earlier. In 1948, London put on the Games after World War II in a city where food, clothing and gasoline were still being rationed and where the Olympic family, as it is now called, was housed in everything from Royal Air Force camps to college dormitories to tents.
Those Games were called "The Austerity Olympics," but despite Britain's recent economic struggles, the Games of the 30th Olympiad that will begin in London on Friday will be far from austere and very much in keeping with the big-budget, big-spectacle approach that has transformed the Summer Games into the world's largest quadrennial showpiece.
''I used to joke that I would hate to be the city to have to follow Beijing, because of the resources and everything the Chinese put behind it," said Michael Payne, a former International Olympic Committee executive, referring to the 2008 Games in China. "But I think in the end London will more than hold its own against any previous Games. The only black cloud for me is the security agenda and whether there is some crazy, as they say, lone wolf out there."
Security costs, by some recent estimates, will exceed 550 million British pounds, or $860 million, for the London Games and have become an increasingly large part of the estimated total expenditure of 9.3 billion pounds. Closed circuit televisions are as much a part of the British landscape now as roundabouts, and the country is well-accustomed to staging major sporting and cultural events, including Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee celebration last month.
But security has remained a concern in the weeks leading up to these Games with the inquiry into the private security firm G4S and its failure to fulfill its contractual commitment to providing sufficient staffing.
Londoners surely needed no reminder about the dark side of staging the Olympics. On July 6, 2005, they celebrated in pubs and in private, and at a party in Trafalgar Square, when London defeated Paris by a narrow margin to be named the host city for 2012.
The next day, terrorism shattered the festive mood as a coordinated bombing attack in the London Underground and on a double-decker bus left 52 people dead and hundreds wounded.
Though there has been no definitive linkage between the timing of that attack and the Olympic bid, the two remain linked in many Londoners' minds, and there have been other security concerns in London since then, including the rioting and looting last summer.
Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic champion and chairman of the London Organizing Committee, categorized that at the time as "quite an aberration" and "some fairly unstructured late-night shopping." But it was yet another reminder of how quickly mood and impressions can shift.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive U.S. Republican presidential nominee, used the term "disconcerting" in comments to NBC News to describe reports of the G4S staffing issues and of a potential strike by British immigration and customs officials.
''That obviously is not something which is encouraging," said Romney, who was the chief of the organizing committee at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
In the same NBC interview, Romney also questioned the level of public support for the Olympics in Britain. "Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic movement?" asked Romney, who is in London and was expected to attend the Opening Ceremony on Friday. "That's something which we only find out once the Games actually begin."
On Thursday, David Cameron, the British prime minister, visited the Olympic Park in Stratford in East London and responded to Romney's comments.
''This is a time of some economic difficulty for the U.K., but look at what we are capable of achieving as a nation even at a difficult economic time," Cameron said.
During a speech in front of the new Olympic stadium, Cameron also said, "You're going to see beyond doubt that Britain can deliver."
He added: "We've delivered this incredible Olympic Park on time, on budget and in real style."
The Park, which will be the hub of the 2012 Games, is indeed grand in scale if uneven in architectural appeal, and is reminiscent of recent Olympic Parks, including those in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.
The highlights here include the Aquatics Center, whose swooping form is reminiscent of the underbelly of a whale, and the wooden-clad Velodrome with its elegant concave roof, which has earned it the nickname "The Pringle." The dimmer lights are the vast expanses of pavement and the unfortunate 375-foot, or 115-meter, observation tower built next to the main stadium, which looks like a roller coaster that has just emerged from a trash compactor.
But the Park, much of it built in a once-blighted area, remains an impressive achievement and symbol, considering that this is also one of the last areas in London that still contained damage from World War II.
On Wednesday evening, it was no challenge to envision the Olympic atmosphere as tens of thousands of fans worked their way through the new, huge Westfield mall and security gates: capturing images on their cameras and phones in front of the main stadium as they prepared to attend a dress rehearsal for the Opening Ceremony.
Outside, they gathered, full of curiosity, around large racks of grass and wheat, decorative elements that were to be used during the rurally inspired sequences of the ceremony, which is being orchestrated by Danny Boyle, the British director of the film "Slumdog Millionaire."
Surprises have become the coin of the realm in Olympic ceremonies: Who would have imagined Li Ning's gravity-defying sprint around the upper rim of the National Stadium to light the caldron in Beijing?
The British team's chef de mission, Andy Hunt, told The Guardian newspaper on Thursday that several British sporting figures and British Olympians would be involved in the climactic sequence of Friday's ceremony. Speculation over who might light the caldron has focused on Steven Redgrave, who won gold medals in rowing in five consecutive Olympics from 1984 to 2000, but also on Roger Bannister, who became the first runner to break the 4-minute barrier in the mile. Bannister, now 83, achieved that on May 6, 1954, in Oxford.
Bannister's candidacy would presumably be popular with Coe, a former middle-distance star, but Bannister never won an Olympic medal, and broke his record in a nonmetric event in a world that is ever-more metric. He or Redgrave also might now be considered too obvious a choice to generate the requisite thrill on Friday night.
The British, who finished a surprising fourth in the standings at the 2008 Olympics, with 19 gold medals, are expected to field another strong team with a following wind of local support. But China and the United States are again expected to jostle for supremacy at the top of the medal standings. China is not expected to equal its record total of 51 golds from 2008, but it remains a powerhouse in sports like diving, weightlifting, badminton, table tennis and, increasingly, swimming. The United States, which won 36 gold medals in 2008 and finished atop the overall table with 110 medals, remains a market leader in sports like track and field, swimming, basketball and women's gymnastics.
In its latest statistical analysis, Infostrada Sports, a Dutch company, projects that the United States will lead the gold-medal tally in London with 36 to China's 32 and Russia's 21. In total medals, Infostrada projects China will lead with 85 to Russia's 83 and the United States' 82.
But nationalism is no longer as weighty an Olympic theme as it was during the Cold War. Broader social issues continue to gain mindshare, and women's rights have been particularly prominent this year with the international push for Saudi Arabia to include women in its Olympic team for the first time.
Two are now expected to participate: the U.S.-based 800-meter runner Sarah Attar and the judoka Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, whose ability to compete here could be compromised if the International Judo Federation sticks by its decision not to allow her to wear a head scarf.
For now, in another first, each of the 205 National Olympic Committees taking part here has sent male and female athletes, and, for the first time, the U.S. Olympic team will have more women than men: 269 to 261 at last count.
What matters deeply to Coe is that these Games allow the athletes, all of the athletes, an unobstructed stage. "Certainly, I want the thing to work absolutely like clockwork," he said in a recent interview. "But I will always see this through the prism of the competitor, so what I never want is to have to look the athlete in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry it didn't work. We should have done better.'
''I want the athlete to come to me and say, 'I may not have competed as well as I could. I may have ambitions above what I achieved, but I can't genuinely say it was because you left any stones unturned.'"
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The most prominent Olympians in Beijing are the two main men from the last Games: the U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. Phelps won an unprecedented eight gold medals in 2008, setting seven world records. Bolt won the 100 meters, the 200 and the 4-by-100 relay, all in world-record times. But both stars are under threat here because of talented compatriots. Phelps will be challenged by Ryan Lochte in the individual medley events; Bolt has been beaten this year in the 100 and 200 by his training partner Yohan Blake and has concerns about a hamstring injury that might not be helped if London's sudden heat wave subsides and cooler, wetter conditions return.
The duels between Phelps and Lochte and between Bolt and Blake should be among the highlights of these Games, which will be watched increasingly on screens other than television screens.
''The huge change is online, a simple word that covers a lot," said Ciaran Quinn, director of Olympics and strategic business for the Italian sports media company Deltatre.
Quinn said the latest estimates were that approximately four billion unique viewers would see some of the Olympics on television. But he believes that the number of unique "digital" consumers will approach one billion. "We've gone from 9 million visitors to the official website in Sydney in 2000 to 1 billion," he said.
Such numbers — like those that Bolt and Phelps can generate — are impressive indeed, but the Olympics are also about smaller-scale encounters, some of them, hard as it might be to believe, outside of public view.
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''For me," French tennis player Gilles Simon told L'Equipe in the Olympic village this week, "the spirit of the Olympics is an American basketball player next to a tiny Chinese gymnast in line at the cafeteria."