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Lewis: London hoping to impress the world with Olympics

Published July 26, 2012 3:37 pm

Olympics • Despite the early controversies, prime minister insists "Britain can deliver."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

London

Snark? Skepticism? Scandal?

Yep, the London Olympics have them all, and they haven't even started yet.

The gun goes off — so to speak — with the opening ceremony on Friday, commencing 16 days of competition that, if we are to trust the characteristic cheek and good humor of the hosts, is going to be a lot more fun than the stifling Beijing Olympics four years ago.

Of course, what's not fun about throwing a $14 billion party in the middle of one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities?

Oh, right.

The London Olympics already have been besieged by challenges and controversy, though no less a figure than British Prime Minister David Cameron, standing alongside organizing chairman and two-time gold medalist Sebastian Coe in front of the Olympic Stadium on Thursday, promised that in spite of it all, the London Olympics are going to be a rousing success.

"You're going to see beyond doubt that Britain can deliver," he said.

That would be splendid, wouldn't it, if the sun stayed out and the traffic remained jammed only to its usual maddening level and whoever they finally convinced to be security guards had nothing more to fret than maybe a misplaced purse or a lost tourist?

That way, everybody would be able to relax and enjoy the excitement and achievement of athletes such as sprinter Usain Bolt, swimmer Michael Phelps and two-time champion fencer Mariel Zagunis, who charmingly said her election as the American flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremony after four tied votes was "a cherry on top of a pile of cherries that were already there."

See, that's the spirit.

The world soon will see how much of that the Brits have, once some 10,500 athletes from 204 countries descend in full force, followed by 20,000 credentialed members of the media and millions of fans from all over the world.

Cameron insisted British enthusiasm for the Games won't be a problem, citing the millions who have turned out to watch the Olympic flame make its way around the Kingdom, en route to the stadium for the ceremony, where legendary runner Roger Bannister has become the hot favorite to light the cauldron.

"The torch relay really demonstrated that this is not a London games, this is not an England games, this a United Kingdom Games," he said. "We will show the whole world not just that we come together as a United Kingdom, but also we're extremely good at welcoming people from across the world."

The ceremony will be the first event to really showcase the personality of the Games, and that promises to be as British as British can be, with acclaimed director Danny Boyle of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame in charge of the $41 million production.

Yet the ceremony hadn't even taken place yet when organizers committed their first official cock-up — yes, that's a legitimate British term — of the Olympics, showing the South Korean flag on a stadium video screen when the North Korean women's soccer team was being introduced at Hampden Park in Glasgow.

Think of it as the international version of broadcasting the Utah logo next to a photo of Max Hall.

The angry North Koreans left the field and refused to play until the situation was corrected, forcing Cameron to join the Olympic organizers in offering apologies. It was an "honest mistake," the prime minster said.

The concern, though, is that it was just the first apology that will be required here, for greater and greater missteps — though the International Olympic Committee has refused to apologize for not including a moment of silence in the Opening Ceremony on the 40th anniversary of the "Black September" terrorist attacks that killed 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Games in Germany.

"We feel that the Opening Ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident," IOC President Jacques Rogge said last week.

On another front, dozens of athletes have been kept from the Olympics due to failed drug tests, among the 71,649 carried out by the World Anti-Doping Agency before the Games — with another 6,000 expected during what WADA President John Fahey said will be the "most tested Games in Olympic history."

Organizers are even armed with a breakthrough new test for human-growth hormone.

World indoor champion high jumper Dimitris Chondrokoukis of Greece was among those caught, but his scandal doesn't seem to have measured up to countrywoman Voula Papachristou, a triple-jumper expelled by the Greek Olympic Committee for posting what many viewed as a racist joke on Twitter.

It was the first casualty in what's fast becoming the "Social Networking" Olympics. Heavy traffic shut down Twitter worldwide for a time on Thursday, and athletes were being warned to be careful about what they post online.

Otherwise, though, things on the ground so far have been mostly lovely, save for a series of blips that caused traffic delays.

The sun has been out after a miserably sopping summer, the locals and volunteers have been unfailingly friendly. Work in the Olympic Park was down to the touch-up stage, with Japanese athletes from the nearby village jogging along its wide boulevards while dancers rehearsed in the shade of buildings and trees.

Yet questions about the transport and the security are legitimate; in the most serious scandal, security firm G4S failed to provide enough guards, prompting the military to deploy some 3,500 soldiers to help fill the gap.

"Ten days to the Games," a headline in the Guardian newspaper sarcastically read last week, "what could go wrong?"

Equally uncertain is the degree to which citizens in one of the world's most diverse cities will get excited for an event that doesn't seem to have moved the needle quite the same way it did in Beijing and Vancouver, the host cities for the past two Olympics.

Perhaps that's owing to London's place on the international stage, nowhere near an inferiority complex, or to the other national sensibilities of propriety and understatement.

Either way, it should be fun to watch.

"I hope what people will see is obviously all the things they love about Britain's past, all the things they like about our history, our institutions, our culture, our contributions to world development," Cameron said. "But I also hope they'll see a very open country and one that has an enormous amount to offer for the future."

mcl@sltrib.com

Twitter: @MCLTribune