It could have been the 15,000 participants, or maybe the $100 million price tag, or perhaps The Flying Man, the guy who lit the torch after completing his final lap of the Olympic Stadium track while suspended in midair. Whatever the cause, organizers of next summer's London Olympics must have felt gobsmacked by the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The Games are all about quadrennium-upon-quadrennium comparatives -- faster, stronger, higher and all that -- and in the Olympic event that could be called synchronized can-you-top-this, the Chinese retired the trophy.
But somewhere along the way members of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (
London's Olympic Stadium will be a Spartan one, shorn of many initially envisioned flourishes, and there'll be no mad dash to complete this or other venues, virtually all of which are competition-ready. The worldwide recession, followed by austerity measures introduced by David Cameron's new coalition government, forced LOCOG to lop $44 million off its budget, and the result has been a kind of anti-giantism that Londoners seem to be warming up to, thank you very much. All of which increases the odds that there will actually be a legacy -- or at least a salutary one, unlike Sydney, which left behind a clutch of white-elephant venues; or Athens, whose abiding debt today threatens the entire economy of Europe; or Beijing, where the post-Games comedown left the average Chinese with a hangover of the spirit. Indeed, London beat out Moscow, Madrid, New York and Paris in large part because of the IOC's delight at a $12 million commitment to funding sport in the developing world.
The most exciting take-away is likely to be an urban renewal one, as London, borrowing from Barcelona, uses the Games to make itself whole. Olympic Park, which will host 10 sports, sits at the center of a $13 billion effort to overhaul a once-blighted postindustrial patch of the East End -- until now known primarily as home to the soccer club West Ham United, with its pornographer owner and tradition of hooliganism (as well as the disreputable Fagin of Dickens' Oliver Twist). After its service as the heart of the Games, Olympic Park will be rededicated to community use, with rivers and pathways for bird-watching, an Athletes Village transformed into affordable housing, and an Olympic Stadium doubling as a new home ground for a presumably more civilized West Ham United.
Even as it strives for something new, Britain will be leveraging its own heritage. Sometimes the iconic England will enjoy pride of place, with tennis at Wimbledon, soccer at Wembley and rowing at Eton, only a couple of power 10s away from Windsor Castle. At the same time Cool Brittania will have a chance to strut its stuff, with a privately funded, bespoke cable car ferrying fans over the Thames between the North Greenwich (a.k.a. O2) Arena and the ExCel Center; and a 300-foot high, bright-red steel lattice spiral sculpture cum observation tower called the ArcelorMittal Orbit, which will sit between the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre and offer spectators vistas of the Olympic vale.
The stuffy and the literally cheeky will coexist most strikingly at beach volleyball, which is set for Horse Guards Parade, across St. James Park from Buckingham Palace; there a spectator will be able to watch hand signals flashed behind betrunked derrières, and throw a glance over the shoulder into the gardens behind No. 10 Downing Street.
The booster shot of Anglophilia administered to much of the world by the Kate-and-William royal wedding may help explain the early interest in the London Games. When live sales of the U.S. ticket allotment began, demand left the Web site inaccessible for hours, forcing the vendor, CoSport, to issue a round of sheepish e-mails of the we-beg-your-forgiveness ilk. All of which means that many Americans who thought they might hop across the pond will have to content themselves with coverage from NBC, which is rightly drooling over an almost inexhaustible supply of backdrops.
To be sure, LOCOG has had its glitches in the run-up. (It's in the Olympic Charter: No Games may commence without them.) The countdown clock in Trafalgar Square briefly froze with 500 days to go. No one in England seems satisfied with the procedure for distributing the host country's share of the 6.6 million tickets that went on sale three months ago. The logo was widely panned; some called it a disfigured swastika, while Iran complained to the IOC that the elements nefariously spelled out the word Zion. A few anti-Games groups have raised a fuss -- an outfit called NOGOE (No to Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Events) is indignant that competitors will gambol with their horses around Greenwich Royal Park, a 200-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site. And deep cuts in grassroots and school sport are inevitably helping to pay for the party. But on the whole Londoners have adopted their characteristic mustn't-grumble, carry-on attitude toward all things five-ringed, as might be expected. A people who over the past 70 years have ridden out threats from the Blitz, the IRA and Al Qaeda aren't likely to be fazed by, say, Olympic security measures.
If the 2012 Olympics will be scaled down as spectacle, early indications suggest that its athletic feats may follow suit. Swimmer Michael Phelps of the U.S. flatly insists that he won't duplicate the eight gold medals he won in Beijing, while sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica hasn't lately turned in times to suggest that he'll improve upon his world sprint records. But as teammate Ryan Lochte challenges Phelps, and Bolt feels heat from Tyson Gay of the U.S. -- a year ago Gay beat Bolt the only time the two met, only to have hip problems set him briefly back -- the prospect remains that more evenly matched rivals will nudge one another toward greater heights.
U.S. hopes will rest with some familiar faces and some new ones. If she can reach one more podium, Natalie Coughlin will tie fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most career Olympic medals collected by an American with 12. David Oliver may be an unknown right now, but last year he ranked as the world's top hurdler, and Coca-Cola recently cast its lot with him as a leading Olympic spokesman. Meanwhile the decathlon may be returning to its status as a private U.S. playground, as Clay and Trey hark back to the days of Dan and Dave: Bryan Clay won gold in Beijing, Trey Hardee won the 2009 world championship, and they'll be joined by another American medal contender, Ashton Eaton. Think Dan Johnson and Dave O'Brien and raise 'em one.
Other storylines to watch for include the Russians, who may be reaping early dividends from efforts to restore former Olympic glory in advance of winter hosting duties in Sochi in 2014. Their women gymnasts were surprise team winners at the world championships in Rotterdam last year. And the Chinese are developing another crop of practitioners of Mao's favorite sport, swimming, and not only with their usual bevy of aquatic women. Earlier this year male butterflyer Peng Wu twice beat Phelps in the 200 meters, an event the American had gone nine years without losing.
As for the hosts, they're eyeing medals in rowing, sailing, taekwondo, triathlon and track, as well as swimming and cycling, where Rebecca Adlington and Chris Hoy, respectively, are already multiple Olympic medalists. In 2008 Great Britain placed fourth in the medal count despite participating in only 11 sports; with a team of almost twice as many athletes that will contest 26 sports, the Brits should improve on that finish if only by flooding the zone. To that end the U.K.'s head track coach, a party-pooping Dutchman named Charles Van Commenee, has declared that none of his charges will be permitted to participate in the energy-sapping Opening Ceremony.
Speaking of which: There's no need to fret on its behalf, comparisons to Beijing notwithstanding. In the hands of Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, it's likely to feature bold brush strokes of color and a storyline rife with surprises. That may be why more than 200 heads of state have already put in for spots in the VIP stand on July 27, 2012.
To Brits and Yanks alike, it must be of great comfort to know that some people won't have to worry about tickets.