The grand old city rescued the Games as a last-minute host in 1908 and '48, and its record third Olympics, planned through seven years of triumph and tragedy, should be a vibrant (if possibly soggy) model for the future
This is an article from the July 23, 2012 issue
TURN BACK a page and linger for a moment on that opening picture, taken at a London Olympics test event last year. It captures as well as anything what to expect from the Games of the 30th Olympiad as they unfold over the next few weeks. As backdrop there's the old, the Admiralty building from which Britain's Navy once commanded an empire. In the foreground spreads the new, the tricked-up sport of beach volleyball, introduced in 1996 by an International Olympic Committee hungry for younger viewers and higher TV ratings. London will deliver a Games marked by just such contrasts, the kinds of juxtapositions from which the host city draws its energy—old and young, near and far, sacred and profane, all of them cheek, as it were, by jowl.
Outside the Stratford tube station in the East End a pair of women in burkas distribute FIND OUT ABOUT ISLAM leaflets, just steps from the Ann Summers lingerie and sex-toy shop in the mall through which spectators will pass when walking to the Games' main venue hub, the Olympic Park (page 56). Near Hyde Park, site of the Olympic triathlon and open-water swimming, the house at 25 Brook Street, in which George Frederic Handel once composed, sits next to Jimi Hendrix's old digs at Number 23. Londoners themselves live amid a jumble of races, religions, national origins and even classes. (For its higgledy-piggledy residential patterns the city can thank the host of the 1936 Olympics, Adolf Hitler: Postwar housing projects were built on bombed-out patches of the city, and the Nazis hadn't discriminated.) Spectating during the Games promises to bring leaders and commoners particularly close: Members of the royal family will practically be able to watch the rowing from a Windsor Castle window; if not for a temporary screen, a fan in the stands at beach volleyball could peer into the garden of 10 Downing Street.
It's not certain that Her Majesty will be obliged to sit through the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen, banned by the BBC upon its release in 1977 for lyrics such as "God save the Queen/She ain't no human being." But that punk anthem appears on the leaked playlist of music under consideration for the opening ceremony. So welcome to 21st-century London: For every tradition-encrusted crew race at Eton, tennis match at Wimbledon and soccer game at Wembley, count on something jarringly new, such as Iraqi immigrant architect Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre, which resembles a butterflyer coming up out of the water; and the Emirates Air Line funicular, which will shuttle fans over the Thames between the North Greenwich Arena (formerly the O2) and the ExCeL Centre; and the 376-foot, red, latticed-steel sculpture-cum-observation-tower, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, which looks out over the Olympic Park. Indeed, as London, site of the 1908 and '48 Games, becomes history's first three-time host city, sometimes the new will literally superimpose itself on the old, as photos from each day's action are to be projected that night on the facade of the Victorian-era Houses of Parliament.
For centuries humans have groped to describe London, and in the end most return to the same feature: its inhabitants, so many and so motley. "People-pestered," a Renaissance writer named Nicholas Grimald called it. To Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the city was "a roost for every bird," and novelist Evelyn Waugh described it as a place where "the English are hard to find." These accounts (from the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively) hold up strikingly well today. And to think that Birmingham (for 1992) and Manchester (for '96) mounted bids to host the Olympics. Seriously: Manchester? Birmingham? England was never going to get the Games. London—inevitably, rightly, with more than a third of its population foreign-born—did.
London is the Olympic rings of cities: many colors, intertwined. Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), wants every visiting athlete to feel that he or she is "walking out at home." By that he means two things. First, that the organizers have done all they can to protect the interests of the competitors. "They've devoted half their lives to that moment," says Coe, who won gold medals for Great Britain in the 1,500 meters in 1980 and '84. "We can't ever let them become victims of our own shortcomings."
The other part of "walking out at home" is atmospheric. "We want stadiums full of passionate fans," Coe says. "Given that London has people of 300 nationalities who speak more than 200 languages, we have a good chance to create a section of home fans at every venue for every competitor in the world."
Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle will lead the opening ceremony, and his production is likely to dazzle, even if it's budgeted at only a third of the cost of Beijing's four years ago. If the Brits do one thing well, it's spectacle. They pull swords from stones, and disappear into brick walls at train stations, and somehow, in 1912, installed a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in the middle of the night, so the sun would come up on something that seemed to have appeared by magic. The world has already had a foretaste of the Olympic showmanship it can expect. At the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert in June, a graphic installation firm, the same one retained for the Games, projected images of a range of British dwellings, from Georgian terraces to council flats, on the facade of Buckingham Palace while Madness performed its hit Our House. During its relay tour of Britain, the Olympic flame has been conveyed on a zipline over the River Tyne, by a rappeller down the side of a concert hall in Gateshead and along the beach in Scotland where the opening scene of Chariots of Fire was filmed 32 years ago. In this same spirit many venues will cater to the cameras, with a bank of seats sometimes sacrificed to fetch a view. From the Equestrian Centre in Greenwich Park, Sir Christopher Wren's Old Royal Naval College will fill the frame alongside Canary Wharf skyscrapers jutting up in the distance.
Amidst all this pageantry it's worth remembering the journey that London has made since being awarded the Games on July 6, 2005. The next morning explosives carried by Islamist suicide bombers ripped through the transport system, killing 52 people and injuring some 700 more, many of them as they read newspaper accounts of the city's Olympic coup. Soon the worst economic crisis in 80 years plunged the country into a double-dip recession, and budget cuts left the social fabric so frayed that riots erupted last August.
To many Londoners, the Cool Britannia era of optimism and upswing that began in the 1990s ended with the attacks on 7/7. This summer will offer the city its first chance to reclaim some of that swagger. That's why most Brits have shrugged off the passing glitches, like the countdown clock in Trafalgar Square that froze with 500 days to go, and the invitation to play at the closing ceremony extended to former Who drummer Keith Moon, who died, before he got old, in 1978.
While Coe leads the effort through these hiccups, chin up and eyes on the prize, London's bluff mayor, Boris Johnson, works the rear guard, calling out skeptics as "gloomadon poppers" and "dismal johnnies." To be sure, the naysayers have their fodder. LOCOG is asking the world's oldest subway system to carry three million extra passengers each day. Organizers doled out slots in the torch relay to sponsors, sometimes giving mid-level marketing reps a moment of glory at the expense of ex-Olympians, youth mentors and volunteers. In Britain, policing unauthorized use of the Olympic rings and marks has reached Orwellian levels: In one case a choreographer was forced to change the title of an original commission for the Birmingham Royal Ballet from Faster, Higher, Stronger to Faster, full stop. Tickets have been an endless source of complaints, most recently after revelations that foreign Olympic officials and agents have scalped from their allotments. And of course, the carpers insist, it'll rain. Probably. But even after the wettest June in a century, Boyle has ordered up artificial clouds for the night of Friday, July 27, to make sure his tableau of British history, Isles of Wonder, won't lack for verisimilitude. Rain: not a bug but a feature!
It poured the two previous times London hosted the Games. History nonetheless vindicated both those Olympics as having helped stabilize a movement in distress. After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius forced the Italians to abandon their efforts to stage the 1908 Games in Rome, London raised a stadium within 10 months, then piggybacked the event on an already-planned Franco-British Exposition at White City. In '48, after World War II had wiped out two Olympics, London returned the Games to normalcy despite the continued rationing of everything from bread to gas. The British press and public grumbled about priorities and affordability before the '48 Games, much as many are doing today. But afterward one journalist wrote approvingly that his countrymen had pulled it all off "on the smell of an oily rag."
Those first two London Olympics were both staged with only two years' notice. Each turned a profit. And they launched a number of practices and traditions still in place. The 1908 Games, the first to be preserved with motion pictures, introduced the opening ceremony and official national teams. The modern marathon covers its odd distance—26 miles and 385 yards—because, the story goes, 104 years ago Princess Mary wanted her sons to see the start from Windsor Castle's royal nursery, extending the race from its planned 26 miles.
Wide-scale corporate sponsorship, cadres of volunteers, live TV coverage, photo-finish technology and sex testing all debuted in 1948. Those "Austerity Olympics" were so winningly egalitarian that they helped hasten the end of the British upper-class attitude that privileged the gentleman-amateur (i.e., wealthy) athlete. Although their country's competitors weren't welcome in '48 because of the U.S.S.R.'s blockade of Berlin, Soviet diplomats bought tickets to every event, and upbeat reports back to Stalin touched off an Eastern bloc enthusiasm for the Olympics. Since London '48, the Summer Games have been reliably renewed every four years.
But as the Olympics hurtle forward, their cost inexorably ratchets up, with controversy along for the ride. London's $14 billion price tag, driven largely by the near doubling of the security budget in the last year, represents the most ever spent on a Games, according to a study by Oxford University's Sa√Ød School of Business. (The report concludes that the 2008 Beijing Olympics, widely thought to have cost more than $35 billion, actually came in at much less because the venues were built with such cheap labor.) A promised boost to grassroots sport in Britain helped justify the lavish public expenditures, but that legacy is being undermined by cuts that have left rec centers closed and sports fields sold. It's also unclear whether the Olympic Park alone can touch off a full reversal of the fortunes of East London, another ballyhooed pro-Olympics talking point. "The East End never recovered from the rise of the container cargo ship, which wiped out work on the docks," says Stefan Szymanski, a native Londoner and professor at Michigan who studies the economic impact of the Olympics. "This event is a welcome thing, but relative to the scale of the disaster, it's not going to right the wrong."
London organizers have nonetheless delivered one undisputed legacy by insisting on temporary venues unless a structure has some dedicated post-Games use. "We'd always been set on an Olympics delivered sustainably and responsibly," Coe says. "We'd instinctively recognized that the days of building big were a thing of the past. Which is just as well when you follow Beijing, frankly."
There it is again—another liability enshrined as a virtue. But after the regimentation and humorlessness of the last Olympics, surely there's something to be said for London's showcasing its status as the capital of a democracy, as well as its traditions of understatement, quirky humor, Shakespeare and rock and roll. "We need to do this in a British way," says someone with ties to Buckingham Palace. "That will suit the city, as long as we don't smash the place up."
Between the day the Games were won and the night the cauldron is lit, Londoners will have transited some of the most challenging passages a people can endure. It may seem odd to bookend terrorism, penury and riots with five-ringed delirium. But then the Thames, an ugly brown from the silt that the tides stir up from its bottom, is also the healthiest industrial river in Europe thanks in part to all that activity. So go ahead and embrace the paradox—of burkas and lingerie, of Handel and Hendrix, of the Queen and the Sex Pistols. For 17 long-in-coming days, nearly eight million Londoners will. We might as well too.
Dubbed the Pringle for its sloping roof, the arena will rock as British riders rule the ultrafast Siberian pine oval.
Basketball prelims, handball
After the Paralympics the green-designed temporary structure will be either recycled or relocated.
Boxing, fencing, judo, table tennis, taekwondo, weightlifting, wrestling
Waterfront conference center will be Games' busiest arena.
The Royal Artillery Barracks
A temporary venue will be set up in the historic barracks, known for its 1,080-foot Georgian facade.
Phelps and Lochte will heat up the 79° water inside the striking structure designed by Iraq's Zaha Hadid.
Water Polo Arena
The U.S. women could win gold in the first Olympic venue (albeit a temporary one) ever constructed just for their sport.
North Greenwich Arena
Basketball semis and finals, artistic gymnastics, trampoline
LeBron and Kobe replace Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as stars to watch in this decade-old, 20,000-seat venue.
Equestrian, modern pentathlon riding
The park sits at 0° longitude, on the meridian used to set Greenwich Mean Time.
Track and field, ceremonies
Set on an island amid three environmentally cleaned-up streams, the 80,000-seat utilitarian bowl was built with one quarter as much steel as Beijing's Bird's Nest.
Handball, modern pentathlon fencing
The name derives from a recycled-copper exterior.
The temporary venue's two hockey pitches are surfaced with bright blue artificial turf.
Twenty days after the Grand Slam event, reseeded courts host the most prestigious Olympic tournament ever.
The Surrey site offers a view of riders on the aptly named Zig Zag road.
Rowing, canoe sprint
Hampton Court Palace
Road cycling time trial start/finish
Horse Guards Parade
Triathlon, marathon swimming
Lee Valley WhiteWater Centre
Lord's Cricket Ground
Badminton, rhythmic gymnastics
Eco-designed on reclaimed industrial land in London's East End, the Olympic Park will be the Games' hub, hosting nine sports at eight venues and housing athletes at the Olympic Village. The 23 other venues include soccer stadiums in Wales, Scotland and northern England, and sailing courses off the southern coast at Portland and Weymouth