LONDON — More often than not, the Olympic host city doesn’t really host the Olympics. It merely hosts a couple of IOC caviar buffets, while the real event tends to take place in a remote pasture or distant slum. That’s not so of the London Games, an exercise in bravado that is really here, in the heart of this great, ageless swirl of a city, with all the potential chaos, headache and magnificence that might entail. Mitt Romney better look both ways when he leaves his hotel, or he is liable to be hit by a ball.
How romantic, to actually hold the Games outside the front door of Buckingham Palace, just over the back wall of 10 Downing Street, under the caustic eye of the Fleet Street press and in full view of a judgmental mob that evidently includes a certain U.S. presidential candidate. To Romney’s eye gazing from his suite, London is not quite prepared, an opinion he rendered based on his credentials as the organizer of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. To which Prime Minister David Cameron replied, “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic games in the middle of nowhere.”
Cameron’s hold-the-vermouth tone reminded us that if the English historically possess a predominant national characteristic, it’s wit. Salt Lake has a population of 190,000, versus London’s 7.5 million. Moreover, the Salt Lake Olympics weren’t actually in Salt Lake. They were in a small gated condo in Deer Valley, unless they were in Kimball Junction.
These Games will be so threaded through the streets of London that oddsmaker William Hill took money bets on whether the torch procession would accidently catch the exuberant mayor’s hair on fire. Boris Johnson has a famously rampant blond mane, not to mention rampantly hilarious mouth. He once said: “My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
Johnson insists that it’s only right the Olympics be in London because, “Virtually every single one of our international sports were either invented or codified by the British . . . and there I think you have the essential difference between us and the rest of the world.” Including, he insists, table tennis. The French looked at a table and “saw dinner,” he said. Whereas the British saw opportunity.
The odds on Johnson’s hair catching fire from the torch started out at 60-1. But then Johnson got a trim, and they rose to 100-1. “I didn’t know he had gone and got a sneaky haircut,” William Hill spokesman Rupert Adams told Reuters indignantly. “It’s not so wavy now so it’s less likely to catch fire.”
Still, there was a chance. The torch was so promiscuously paraded that it seemed to touch every monument and dignitary in the city: It ducked into Buckingham Palace, as well as Shakespeare’s Globe. It also rode on a double-decker bus.
Here, open-water swimmers will thrash in the dark eddy of Serpentine lake smack in the middle of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, led by Britain’s medal favorite Keri-Anne Payne, who was the subject of a tabloid headline this week that read, “At Last I Won’t Be Swimming With Sharks, Old Shopping Trollies and Dead Dogs.” Which was pretty good but didn’t come close to matching the all-time winner that ran in The Sunday Sport a few years ago: “Aliens Turned My Son Into a Fish Finger.”
Scanning the newspapers, of course, is one of the great London amusements — as long as you aren’t their subject. The day after Prince Charles declared his engagement to Camilla Parker-Bowles, The Star was not impressed. “Boring Old Gits To Wed,” it said.
By comparison, other so-called “urban” Olympics have been made-for-TV deceptions, with the skyline just a backdrop. The 2000 Sydney Games were charming, but they took place 10 miles outside of town, in a western suburb of New South Wales called Homebush Bay, which now hosts an agricultural show and fair known as the Royal Easter Show. The 2004 Athens Games were stunning, but they were hardly in the shadow of the Parthenon, situated in a northeast suburb called Marousi, and the park is now an olive grove. The Beijing Games were imposing, but they were in the outlying Chaoyang District on a site so sprawling it holds motor races.
Here, beach volleyballs will fly over Henry VIII’s old tiltyard in the Horse Guard’s Parade, which literally is just over a garden wall from the prime minister’s residence. The cycling road race will start and finish on The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace.
There is nothing peripheral or fringe about the London Games; rarely has an Olympics been so personally hosted by the city’s residents, and every inconvenience or threat or thrill will affect them directly. Not all Londoners are enchanted by the prospect, especially given the economic recession. Mercilessly mocking commentators have railed against the elitism of the International Olympic Committee, a ticket scandal, and the bitterly unpopular Olympic traffic lanes that cause gridlock. There has been embarrassment and alarm over security, apprehension about the cost. Without question, such an urban Olympics is a vast undertaking, and it’s something else, too: It’s a risk.
But as the torch traveled through the heart of London toward the Opening Ceremonies, it suddenly seemed undeniably worth it to bring the Games here. Bells rang, and the torch procession moved up the Thames on an oar-driven barge along the city skyline. As it passed tumbledown Tudor structures, broad-shouldered Victorian gothic red brick buildings, parchment-colored limestone towers and the spire-topped heavy grey-stone churches, you could feel something begin to rise. It was joy. If there is one thing London is suited for, it’s a glorious historical pageant. This Olympics has a chance to be impossible — but also impossibly glorious.
For previous Sally Jenkins columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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