After seven years of preparation and a good dose of last-minute nerves, Londoners awoke Friday to the first day of a historic event that has commandeered their city and prompted its biggest security operation in peacetime: The 2012 Olympic Games.
In recent days, as the Olympic torch neared its destination and the sun emerged from the clouds after weeks of gray skies and rain, Londoners’ loud grumbles – about security, traffic jams, and tourists – have given way to a palpable sense of excitement.
“I’m not really into the Olympics and all that,” says Augustine Adejoh, a street sweeper, as he picked up rubbish from a street in central London at dawn. “But I’ve got to say, it’s good for London. People are quite thrilled about it.”
Thursday, the Olympic flame, which has traveled 8,000 miles up and down Britain over the past 70 days, took a valedictory jog around the capital, past monuments from the Houses of Parliament to the steps of Buckingham Palace, where Prince William, his wife, Kate, and his brother, Harry, posed for photographs.
Today, it will sail down the Thames on the royal barge Gloriana before arriving at the Olympic stadium in East London. This evening, it will light the fire that launches the 2012 Olympic Games as part of a spectacular opening ceremony orchestrated by Danny Boyle, the director of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
The opening ceremony is titled: "Isles of Wonder." And while security around the rehearsals has been relatively tight, it is known the that ceremony will celebrate the nation's green landscape dotted with farms and cottages, William Shakespeare, pop culture (Mary Poppins, James Bond, and Paul McCartney), and darker segments of British history, such as the industrial revolution.
The last time London hosted the Games, in 1948, the country was battered by war. At the “Austerity Olympics” as they were dubbed, money, food and energy were in short supply.
The 2012 Olympics are very different. Its total cost estimate has run to more than 9 billion pounds ($14 billion), about triple the original figure. Officials have defended the spending on the grounds that most of it has gone into regenerating a run-down area of London.
Nonetheless, while Britons’ reputation for self-deprecation and cynicism is well deserved, there has been some substance to their complaints about London’s hosting of the 2012 games. Onto a transport system already creaking with commuter traffic, several million extra bodies are expected to add their weight.
London’s black-cab drivers, prone to grousing at the best of times, have organized protests against their exclusion from “Games lanes” reserved for Olympic athletes and officials that have been dubbed “Zil lanes” after Soviet limousines given special privileges.
But the biggest dampener has been a huge security debacle. Only days before the Games were due to start, the security firm G4, charged with guarding them, admitted it had not recruited anywhere near enough guards, forcing the police and the armed forces to step in.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate who is visiting the capital, could not resist mention of the fiasco, saying, “It's hard to know just how well it will turn out.”
London’s famously witty mayor Boris Johnson, who has been cheerleading the Games with some gusto, was not going to let him get away with that.
“There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we are ready,” yelled Mr. Johnson at an excited crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park, where the flame spent Thursday night. “We are ready.… We’re going to win more gold, silver, and bronze medals than you’d need to bail out Greece.”
And then, encouraging the crowd to shout the slogan made famous by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign: “Can we put on the greatest Olympic Games ever held?”
“Yes we can!” yelled the crowd.