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Inside London's Olympic Village

Every Olympic Village has its ceremonial mayor and London's will be no different. Businessman Charles Allen, a trusty hand in the organizational effort, will nominally preside over the collection of parkland, plazas and high-rise apartments at the eastern edge of the Olympic Park, where the first major influx of athletes arrives today. But Allen is about as colorless as a man can be, and into that charisma vacuum has walked the head of hair with body attached that is, "in actual fact" (as they say in the U.K.), in charge.

(Still trying to get a fix on how "actual" fact differs from the other kind, but I'll get back to you on that.)

The man who really lords over everything that falls within the host city is Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, universally known as BoJo. Last week Johnson welcomed members of the press to the Village, striding around the place as if Charles Allen were but a lamppost.

To build the Village organizers spent $1.76 billion, a sum that seems more justifiable when you consider that, after the Games, its apartments will be retrofitted with kitchens to create 2,818 homes, 1,379 of them "affordable" -- a novel concept indeed in this city. Future residents will be reminded of their dwellings' previous use as they make their way down Cheering Lane or hole up in Festive Mansions.

For now, though, the Village is where athletes can enjoy broadband Internet and pictogram-bedecked duvets in rooms that will be kept to hotel standards by Holiday Inn. They can get flowers or a manicure in the Village Plaza. They won't have to pay for dental care, or soft drinks, or condoms, some 100,000 of which have been requisitioned to meet anticipated demand. (It has become a modern Olympic obligation that supplies in the Village must run out.) At the Main Dining Hall they can choose kimchi, jerk chicken or Welsh laverbread; if they need sustenance of a spiritual sort, they can call on a team of 50 chaplains representing five different faiths. And they can burn calories at the fitness center, or lie down in the pile of a grassy courtyard and engage in the favorite pastime of another Tory politician, David Cameron, "chillaxing."

As Johnson points out, the last London Olympics, in 1948, didn't even have an Olympic Village. Competitors were asked to bring their own towels and bunked in at campsites and military bases and in college dorms, hostels and even classrooms hastily equipped with cots. Aware of food rationing still in place in postwar England, and perhaps justifiably suspicious of British cuisine, visiting countries turned the Games into a potluck. The Hungarians brought 20,000 lemons. The Danes brought 160,000 eggs. The Dutch brought 900 ginger cakes. For their own use the French brought two refrigerated railroad cars of entrecote, while a separate shipment of Mouton-Rothschild was detained at the border because British customs refused to believe athletes of any nationality would require so much wine of such high quality.

"I hope you'd agree we've done better today," Johnson said last Thursday morning, before settling himself at a table in the Main Dining Hall, into which you could fit 880 double-decker buses. "We have just about every legal entertainment London has to offer. Athletes can have their nails done. They can have their hair done. I don't want in any way to sound chauvinistic ... but the Olympic Village knocks Club Med into a cocked hat."

It is distinctly Johnsonian to claim not to want to do something, and then, before the sentence is over, do it. His wild thatch betrays that undisciplined nature. He once confessed to having tried cocaine -- "tried" being the operative word, for he seems to have sneezed inopportunely. But his clumsiness is mostly rhetorical, and easy to spot if you can disentangle the gist of what he's saying from all the florid language and far-reaching metaphor. In 2006, Johnson likened British political infighting to "Papua-New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing." This did not endear him to the citizens of Papua-New Guinea, some of whom will soon be taking up residency in the Olympic Village. Somewhat less than abjectly he promised to add Papua-New Guinea to what he called "my global itinerary of apology."

But Johnson is also relentlessly sunny. His pedigree could have been ordered up from IOC casting, for he counts Christians, Muslims and Jews among his ancestors. Of the 33 sports on the Olympic program, he's powerfully identified with one, introducing greater London to a scheme that, in the U.S., would mark this lifelong Conservative as a tree-hugging, Utopian lefty: a network of rent-a-bicycle stands that anyone with prior registration and a credit card can use. "Boris Bikes" have been a huge hit in large part because Johnson himself faithfully cycles to work.

A reader of Classics at Oxford, Johnson ranks Homer as the all-time gold-medal ancient. When he needs a pick-me-up, he says, he recites a line from The Odyssey: "Endure, my heart; you've endured a worse thing even than this."

With transport and security problems still dogging the organizers as London hits the 11-days-to-go mark, Johnson is likely to summon up that consolation often over the forthcoming days. It's a line that also jibes with a stanza from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses." Inspired by the same Homeric epic, it's chiseled into rock by the Olympic Village's Services Centre:

That which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

*****

"I am not getting my hair cut!" Johnson said last week, as he made his way through the Village Plaza toward the salon.

A press communiqué had indicated that he would. Alas, apparently, that which he is, he is. And so the grounds of the Olympic Village trembled briefly from the shoulders of scores of cameramen slumping simultaneously.

OK, that may not be an "actual fact." This, however, is: BoJo had his nails buffed instead.

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