LONDON — Remember the 2,008 exquisitely synchronized drummers at the opening of the Beijing Games? In London, look for a flock of sheep, three cows, two goats and 10 waddling ducks. Where there were choreographed Chinese philosophers reenacting the invention of the printing press, expect James Bond in a helicopter. And where dragons lurked in the Bird’s Nest stadium, watch out for a Voldemort-vs.-Mary Poppins smackdown inside the glistening new Olympic Park.
But besides the undeniable stamp of British whimsy on a sporting event so often viewed in reverential terms, perhaps the biggest difference at Friday’s Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Games will be the Olympic stadium itself. In stark contrast with the monument to millennial greatness that was the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, the humbler main venue nestled inside a reclaimed urban wasteland in East London is largely collapsible, with a comparatively tiny permanent core of just 25,000 seats.
The London 2012 Olympics begin tonight with the opening ceremony amid economic recession in the host nation. The U.K. is spending $14.6 billion for the 17-day event, a quarter of what China allocated for the last games in Beijing, but far greater than the estimated 20 million pounds spent the last time the English capital welcomed the world's elite athletes in 1948.
As a global audience prepares for nearly three weeks of competition set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most recognizable cities, it speaks to the wholly different mission of the London Games: to bring the ponderous, politicized and outsize Olympics back down to Earth.
“I think there is a bit of a responsibility on us to bring these Games down to size and return them to a game for athletes, to hand them on in such a condition that other countries elsewhere around the world who have not had the Games thus far feel like they can be comfortable bidding for them,” said Hugh Robertson, Britain’s minister for sports and the Olympics. “I don’t feel they should be exclusively the reserve of global superpowers.”
Whereas China went for shock and awe, hosting the most expensive Olympics in history to herald its arrival on the world stage, a Britain locked in recession and fully aware that its grandest days are behind it is trying to do more with less. London’s effort is set to be better attended than the Beijing Games while costing about half as much. In London and host cities across Britain, the 10,490 athletes from 205 nations will compete in more temporary stadiums this year than at the past three Summer Games combined.
Still, at a stated cost of at least $15 billion — or three times more than envisioned a decade ago — these are hardly the austerity games of London 1948, when visiting athletes were asked to bring their own food to a capital still healing from the Nazi blitz. The 2012 Games come during a renaissance of the only city to host the modern Olympics three times. This month’s inauguration of the 1,016-foot Shard tower — the tallest building in the European Union, fitted with a five-star hotel and $80 million apartments — symbolized London’s roaring rise into the playground of choice for Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks and American bankers even as much of the rest of Britain sinks deeper into the doldrums.
Nevertheless, there is still grand ambition afoot. By concentrating Olympic construction in a blighted area of East London, Britain has ignited the most targeted Olympic-related explosion of urban redevelopment since the rebirth of Barcelona’s waterfront in 1992. At the same time, organizers are tapping the Games to fuel Britain’s resurgence as a cultural superpower. Particularly at the Opening and Closing ceremonies, this nation will remind the world that while its soldiers may be fighting and dying in Afghanistan, back home, this is still the Green and Pleasant Land of William Blake and Shakespeare, of Cruella de Vil and Captain Hook, of Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Paul McCartney.