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.