London welcomes Olympic flame as excitement for Games builds
After years of preparation and months of buildup, London's Olympic moment finally arrived Friday night.
With the flame comes the games.
After years of preparation and months of buildup, London's¬†Olympic¬†moment finally arrived Friday night.
Royal Marine Martyn Williams carried the¬†Olympic¬†torch¬†as he rappelled down from a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter into the Tower of London on the shore of the River Thames. The commando's grand entrance plunged the symbol of the games into the city's historic heart, bringing¬†Olympic¬†pageantry to the British capital that last held the event in 1948.
Crowds lined the city's famed river banks to see the¬†torch¬†arrive, while Yeoman warders ‚ÄĒ the ceremonial Tower guards popularly known as Beefeaters ‚ÄĒ looked on from inside the landmark's grounds.
For Londoners, the arrival of the¬†torch¬†ignites a time of excitement ‚ÄĒ as well as four weeks of extreme crowds and transport strains.
Organizers have tried to smooth the way. London Underground subway lines are festooned with large magenta and pink signs pointing routes to the¬†Olympic¬†venues. Cartoony ads with wide-eyed horses and beefy musclemen warn commuters to remember that¬†Olympic¬†competitions are taking place and to rethink their daily journeys. Barriers are being erected to mark the special traffic lanes for¬†Olympic¬†vehicles ‚ÄĒ disparagingly dubbed "Zil lanes," after the limousines granted exclusive use of special lanes on Soviet-era highways.
Londoners who already struggle to get to work on any given weekday aren't convinced all will be well ‚ÄĒ and haven't been shy about saying so. The atmosphere of gloom has been segmented by the never-ending rain and a constant stream of headlines about the failure of security contractor G4S to provide enough guards.
The mayor has a message for the naysayers: "Put a sock in it."
"We've got an advanced case of Olympo-funk," London mayor Boris Johnson wrote in an op-ed piece in The Sun newspaper. "We agonize about the traffic, when our transport systems are performing well and the world's athletes are arriving on time. ... We gnaw our fingernails about the blinking weather, when it seems to be brightening up a bit ‚ÄĒ and anyway, it's England in July for goodness sake and a spot of rain never hurt anyone."
Ready or not, the games are a reality.¬†Olympic¬†banners in hot pink, acid yellow and lime green have painted London in neon. The tubby Cyclops-like mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, are dancing around central London tourist attractions in a desperate bid to be huggable. The city's famous red double-decker buses are sporting ads flogging the last of the unsold¬†Olympic¬†soccer tickets.
The stadiums themselves are nearly ready. At the athletes village, Cuba and Denmark have been the first to drape flags off their balconies. The¬†Olympic¬†clock ticking down the days in Trafalgar Square has reached single digits.
Olympic¬†historian David Goldblatt, co-author of "How to Watch the¬†Olympics," said the flame's arrival in London marks a key turning point.
"I think it signifies the moment when everyone, whether for, against or indifferent, is thinking 'Oh Lord let's just get the bloody thing started,' " he said.
It was only weeks ago that celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee sent Britons into a spasm of patriotic flag waving and "God save the Queen" singing as they watched a flotilla of 1,000 boats on the River Thames. Will the flame's arrival inspire the famously inhibited British to do it all again ‚ÄĒ to cheer and wave and weep and be inspired ‚ÄĒ as the¬†torch¬†relay winds through the city's 33 boroughs?
Could be ‚ÄĒ if the first 62 days of the¬†torch's¬†travels are any indication.
The 8,000-mile (12,900 kilometer)¬†torch¬†relay has already been a cultural happening across the length of Britain, drawing crowds out to meet it wherever it goes. Spectators in rain ponchos have flash-mobbed to its side, hoping for that once-in-a-lifetime chance to touch a bit of history. Some have even stood by the side of the road to see the trucks that carry the¬†torch¬†between cities, as it fulfills a promise to travel within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of 95 percent of Britain's population.
"Both the Diamond Jubilee and the¬†Olympics¬†are like carnivals or tribal festivals," Kate Fox, the author of "Watching the English," wrote in a British Airways survey on the games. "We behave in ways we wouldn't normally behave ‚ÄĒ dancing in the streets and waving flags and shouting and cheering and indulging in other wildly disinhibited acts, such as maybe even talking to strangers."
Britons were even more committed to the flame before the last London¬†Olympics¬†in 1948, when the¬†torch¬†was actually run in a relay from the site of ancient Olympia in Greece. Janie Hampton, author of "London¬†Olympics: 1908 and 1948," said runners traveled continuously day and night. Crowds emerged to see the 1948 flame even in the middle of the night.
In Britain it was such a draw that police outriders had to push people back as the flame neared the stadium to light the cauldron, Hampton said.
"There is one event in the Games which has captured the imagination ‚ÄĒ the carrying of the lighted¬†torch¬†from distant Olympia to the Stadium at Wembley," The Times newspaper wrote on July 28, 1948. "The¬†torch¬†itself, quite apart from its symbolism, is something which, like a lance or a banner, a coat of mail or a jerkin of Lincoln green we can love purely for its own sake. It has a somber glory."
This time the flame has been to every corner of the United Kingdom ahead of its showcase moment at theOlympics' July 27 opening ceremony. Friday was Day 63 of its 70-day journey, which has included travel on boats, planes, horses and hot air balloons. It's been carried by Olympians and Paralympians. The queen's granddaughter,¬†Olympic¬†equestrian competitor Zara Phillips, has shared the honor with 84-year-old Moira Starkey, who walks with two canes and was honored for completing a marathon last year by walking around her town hall 1,876 times to raise money for charity.
If the Beijing relay set up the 2008 Summer Games as China's coming-out party on an international stage, London's relay has set up Britain as the community¬†Olympics¬†‚ÄĒ not flashy or dashy, not big or spectacular, but warm and well attended.
Organizers had always assumed the world would be excited about the games but were not sure what people in Britain would think ‚ÄĒ particularly given that taxpayers will be paying 9.3 billion pounds ($14.7 billion) to host the event at a time of economic austerity.
There's also the fact that so much activity is focused on¬†Olympic¬†Park in London. There had to be some sense that other parts of the country were involved ‚ÄĒ that the¬†Olympics¬†also belonged to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But the numbers ‚ÄĒ some 9 million people have viewed the¬†torch¬†so far ‚ÄĒ speak for themselves. Britain has also poured more money into crowd-control plans for London during the¬†Olympics¬†after acknowledging that it underestimated the crowds that would turn out to see the flame.
Whether they are coming just because it is a local happening, or because people are moved by the fairy dust of the games, it's hard to say. A¬†torch¬†leg features sponsor buses blaring music, streamers and tambourines, cameras and media, cheerleaders shout "Go torchbearer!"
It's not really clear how the capital will respond to the hoopla. This is a place where major events happen with some frequency.
But one thing is for sure. Flame = Olympics.