London Calling

Great Britain is preparing to take the torch with a self-imposed mandate: Spend less, medal more and put together a Games that will leave a lasting mark
August 24, 2008

"Best openingceremony of all time, I don't see how London 2012 can top that! Congratulationsto the Chinese people!"
—WOLFGANG, from Switzerland, in an e-mail in the China Daily, Aug. 13

THE FURNITURE islow-slung chic and the lighting is whisper-soft at London House, a members-onlyclub in Beijing's bustling Xicheng district that serves as ahome-away-from-home for British officials, corporate partners and others in theorbit of the Games. Waitresses circle in the converted Shi Cha Hai Club, whichfronts a lake a mile from the Forbidden City, offering small bowls of sublimeif nontraditional versions of fish-and-chips and steak-and-kidney pie. (TheEnglish accents, however, are authentic.) When China opened the Olympics bypresenting a cultural banquet that climaxed with former gymnast Li Ningcircling the top of the Bird's Nest stadium to light the cauldron—Peter Panmeets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—the well-heeled Brits watching onprojection screens in London House that night were awed. Everyone realized thatthe Olympic bar had been raised.

"I don'tthink one should be talking about topping [Beijing]," said Ashish Mishra,senior manager of emerging markets with the London Development Agency and aLondon House regular. "It's different stories. If you think of the Bondmovies, each and every Bond movie got more and more spectacular. At every pointyou would have a new level of extravaganza, the latest level of technology. Thebigger the scene the better. But what was the one that basically knockedeverybody off his spots? Casino Royale. Why? Because it went back tobasics."

London 2012:stirred, not shaken.

AS TORRENTS ofrain fell on China's capital last Thursday afternoon—the only outdoorcompetition that could have been contested was ark sailing—Sebastian Coe, anarchitect of London's successful Olympic bid, sat in a hotel lobby with a groupof journalists. The former middle-distance star now is Lord Coe and thechairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), butin a polo shirt and cream-colored slacks, the 51-year-old remains disarminglyboyish. When asked what London (where it is rumored to rain on occasion) plansto do to control the weather—China shot 1,110 rockets containing silver iodideto fend off precipitation at the opening—he said, "We're currentlyconstructing a roof that goes over the whole country."

The joke is morephilosophical than meteorological. Not even China would have entertained theidea, although it is now hosting the Apocolympics, the end of the world ofunfettered Olympic spending as we know it. Beijing says it spent more than $40billion on Olympic-related infrastructure; there's no independent accounting.(In a description of the Bird's Nest available on the Games' internal computersystem, the line for the cost of the structure has been left blank, a politeway of saying, "Mind your own damn business.") Setting forth in thedirection of "sustainability," an IOC buzzword since early in thedecade, LOCOG has a current budget of $17.3 billion.

"The days ofleaving white elephants sitting in the middle of hard-pressed communities isover," Coe said. "The Olympic movement realizes that to remainrelevant, the IOC has to [offer] a Games that goes on providing benefits longafter the show has left town."

When the showreturns to England for the first time in 64 years, London's Olympic Stadium inthe hardscrabble East End will hold 80,000 people—Coe is hoping its turf willbe trod by Great Britain's first Olympic soccer team since 1960—but will shed55,000 temporary seats after the Games to serve a second-tier soccer team or arugby club. There will be a new velodrome, a 17,500-seat aquatics center and amultisport complex that will be the site of team handball, but earth-movingwill be modest by Beijing standards.

There will beanother significant difference between London and Beijing that Wolfgang fromSwitzerland might grasp: the newspapers. Wolfgang's e-mail graced an insidepage in China Daily, the English-language parish bulletin of the CentralCommittee of the Communist Party of China, which controls the media. Four yearsfrom now unstinting praise of London's opening ceremony might earn him tabloidheadlines along the lines of WOLF EATS UP OUR GAMES!

Early last weekthe lively British press presented an actual soap opera—the head of theAustralian Olympic Committee had joked, "Not bad for a country that has noswimming pools and very little soap," after Great Britain's RebeccaAdlington and Joanne Jackson finished one-three in the 400-meter freestyle—butthe quintessential Fleet Street tale involved 14-year-old diving prodigy TomDaley and his 26-year-old partner in the synchronized event, Blake Aldridge.They had a spat during the competition, Daley snapping because Aldridge spokeon the phone to his mother at poolside. "It was just Thomas beingovernervous," Aldridge said of the row.

Eyeing the medaltables and recalling that UK Sport, the government body that distributeslottery money to national teams and athletes, had set a target for Britain towin 41 medals, all of the United Kingdom seemed fidgety—until last weekend.

AT ABOUT 7:15p.m. in Beijing last Friday, 20-year-old track cyclist Jason Kenny blisteredthe second of three laps in the team sprint, and self-styled Team GB crushedworld champion France by half a second to touch off perhaps the most remarkableweekend in British Olympic history. In a little more than 48 hours, GreatBritain won nine gold medals in four sports—cycling, rowing, sailing,swimming—and also added four silvers and five bronzes, leaping to 25 medalsoverall and making UK Sport's blustery projection seem positivelyfainthearted.

"Theperformance of Team GB [on Saturday] means that this is the most successful dayof the last 100 years," said Simon Clegg, Great Britain's chef demission.

Of course, toborrow from George Orwell, a noted Londoner, some gold medals are more equalthan others. Last Saturday morning Adlington, 19, broke Janet Evans's19-year-old record in the 800-meter freestyle, the oldest swimming mark extant,to become the first British woman ever to win two swimming golds. Said teammateCassie Patten, "If the queen is watching, this girl should be made adame." Back home, The Guardian, invoking soccer icon David Beckham, opinedthat in 2012 "for one golden fortnight Becky will be more famous thanBecks." Kenny, Daley and others—including Louis Smith, whose bronze medalin the pommel horse was Britain's first gymnastics medal in 80 years—will alsolikely be barraged with publicity and pressure.

According toBritish Olympic Association research, before Beijing almost 70% of the nation'sgold medal winners and 55% of its medalists didn't reach the podium in theirfirst Olympics. To better prepare them to be less like rabbits in a headlight,as Brits say, Team GB flew about 150 prospective competitors and coaches for2012 to the preparation camp in Macau and rotated them through the BeijingOlympic Village, the dining hall and two events, accompanied by formerOlympians as mentors.

In four years theBritish Olympians will all stay at home, a land of hope and stories. China had5,000 years to rehearse the opening ceremony, but the Brits are no slouches atpomp and performance, either. (Instead of Queen Elizabeth II declaring theGames of the XXX Olympiad open, can the Stones just do a live version of StartMe Up?) On Sunday at the closing ceremony, London will have eightminutes—"a sound bite," Coe called it—to introduce itself to the world.Becks himself is expected to be part of the sneak preview of the first Games ofthe rest of the Olympics' life.

Like London 2012,this should be a kick.

"If the queen is watching," said Patten,"this girl should be MADE A DAME."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob MartinJACKED UP Looking homeward are (clockwise from left) badminton player Andrew Smith, gymnast Smith, archer Charlotte Burgess, trap shooter Charlotte Kerwood and diver Tonia Couch. PHOTOROBERT BECK (CYCLING)PEDAL, MEDAL Track cyclist Kenny, record-setter Adlington (below left) and Jackson all contributed to Great Britain's impressive haul. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (SWIMMING)[See caption above]