Olympics: ‘Let the Games begin’
‘Greatest show on Earth’ opens in London town
LONDON—Thousands of bells rang out across Britain as the countdown to the 2012 Olympics reached its finale with a colorful opening ceremony—a three-hour spectacle —ahead of 17 days of competitions that will create heroes, fire national pride and shatter dreams.
Some 16,000 athletes from more than 200 countries will share the thrill of victory or the despair of defeat as they fight for a total of 302 medals in 36 events during the sporting extravaganza.
The opening day showcase created by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle was expected to be watched by a global audience of more than a billion.
People were encouraged on Friday to ring any kind of bell— from a church, a bicycle, a door and even a mobile phone as the harmonious ringing spread from Wales in the west to Weymouth in the south.
One of the biggest bells which took part was London’s Big Ben, the first time it has rung outside its regular hours since the funeral of King George VI in 1952. It chimed about 40 times.
Thousands of VIPs, including some 120 national leaders, are in town for the event, with guests ranging from Angelina Jolie and US First Lady Michelle Obama to the king of Swaziland.
Germany’s Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda were among the leaders set to attend while Michelle Obama will head the US delegation.
But with the spotlight of the world on Britain, authorities were acutely aware of the terror threat. An additional 4,700 troops have been deployed in recent days to make up the shortfall in guards supplied by giant contractor G4S.
A force of more than 40,000 military and civilian personnel, backed by a huge intelligence operation, has turned the British capital into a fortress to protect venues, athletes and 11 million visitors.
“The Olympics is the only event where the world stops,” said 10-time Olympic medallist Carl Lewis.
“If you’re the smallest country with the fewest people in the world or the biggest country with the most people in the world, everyone’s allowed and everyone is invited, so it’s a great thing because you get to see the world and the world sees you.”
The Games will also answer the question on Britons’ lips— were seven years of planning, construction and disruptions, and a price tag of $14 billion during one of the country’s worst recessions, actually worth it?
“This is a very, very tense moment but so far I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Boris Johnson, mayor of London, the only city to host the Summer Games three times. “I’m just worried that I haven’t got enough to worry about at the moment,” added the mayor, known for his witty asides.
There have, however, been bumps along the way.
Media coverage in the last few weeks has been dominated by security firm G4S’ admission that it could not provide enough guards for Olympic venues, meaning thousands of extra soldiers had to be deployed at the last minute, despite its multimillion-dollar contract from the government.
Fears of major attack
Counterterrorism chiefs have played down fears of a major attack on the Games, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said that a safe and secure Olympics was his priority.
“This is the biggest security operation in our peacetime history, bar none, and we are leaving nothing to chance.”
Suicide attacks on London in July 2005 killed 52 people, and this year also coincides with the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich massacre when 11 Israeli Olympic team members were killed by Palestinian militants.
A diplomatic faux pas on Wednesday, when the flag of South Korea appeared at a women’s soccer match between North Korea and Colombia, prompted North Korea’s players to walk off the pitch and delayed kick-off by more than an hour.
A series of doping scandals have also tarnished the Games’ image in the buildup, with at least 11 athletes banned so far, and Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou became the Olympics’ first “twitter victim” when she was withdrawn from the team over tweeted comments deemed racist.
All of that was likely to be forgotten as attention turned to the opening ceremony.
While Boyle has urged the 10,000 participating volunteers and large crowds at rehearsals this week to keep the show a secret, some elements were already in the public domain.
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” it opens with a recreation of bucolic bliss, complete with fields, fences, hedges, sheep, geese, a shire horse, shepherdesses and even a game of village cricket.
The mood then darkens as “England’s green and pleasant land,” from a poem by William Blake, makes way for the sooty chimneys and smoking steel works of the “dark Satanic Mills,” evoking the 19th century urban settings of Dickens.
Stirring music from Britain’s past and present provides the soundtrack, which comes to the fore in the final phase, a psychedelic celebration of pop culture including songs, sitcoms and cinema classics.
The first main day of sport is Saturday when Briton Mark Cavendish is favorite to win gold in the road race in what would be the perfect start for the home nation.
Britain’s hopes are high overall after a successful Games in Beijing, although the United States, China and Russia could dominate the medals table yet again.
Among the most mouthwatering contests is the men’s 100 meters final, traditionally the blue riband event of the Games, with Jamaican Usain Bolt’s domination of the discipline under threat from training partner and compatriot Yohan Blake.
Bolt, fastest man on earth, is vying to do what no man has done before—successfully defend the 100m and 200m Olympic titles, and, despite fitness concerns, he is talking tough.
“This is my time,” he declared. “This will be the moment, and this will be the year, when I set myself apart from other athletes around the world.”
If Bolt and Blake make the final, the Aug. 5 race will rival the Carl Lewis-Ben Johnson clash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics for drama and excitement.
US swimmer Michael Phelps will also be looking to cement his place as the world’s greatest swimmer by adding to the eight gold medals he won in Beijing.
Fall from grace
Greece’s world indoor high jump champion Dimitrios Chondrokoukis withdrew from the Games after testing positive for the drug Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson used before the 1988 Seoul Games.
Johnson was sent home in disgrace after metabolites of the anabolic steroid stanozolol were found in his urine sample following his victory over Carl Lewis in the 100 meters final in world record time.
Johnson’s fall from grace is still the biggest doping scandal in the history of the Games. After serving a two-year suspension he returned to competition but was banned for life after a positive test for excessive levels of the male sex hormone testosterone.
Hungarian discus thrower Zoltan Kovago, a silver medallist at the 2004 Athens Games, will also miss the Olympics after the Court of Arbitration for Sport said he had failed to provide a sample when requested. Kovago denied doping and said he had provided three samples within a four-day period around the time in question.
Another medallist from this year’s world indoor championships, Moroccan 1,500 meters silver medallist Mariem Alaoui, will miss the Games after a positive test for a banned diuretic.
Could be fastest of all time
Bolt, the sensation of the 2008 Games where he destroyed the 100 and 200 meters records, took pains to allay fears about his fitness.
Bolt was beaten by Blake over both distances in the Jamaican trials as he was clearly troubled by a tight right hamstring.
“It’s always a wake-up call to be beaten in the season but it’s better at the trials than at the Olympics,” Bolt said. “It opened my eyes … I’m thinking this could be one of the fastest 100 meters of all time.” Reports from AFP and Reuters