London Rings

From whiff waff to water polo, Olympic sports are heeding the call and heading home for a great Games

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David Goldman / AP

The Olympic rings are lit with pyrotechnics during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Summer Olympics on July 27, 2012.

Chloe Wilcox, a 25-year-old water-polo player, wakes early in the small apartment she shares with two others. First up, an hour of intensive training at 7 a.m., then two hours in the pool and then back to the gym. The routine is repeated later in the day. She eats for England, but a tight budget means eggs are her main source of protein.

On the face of it, surprisingly little has changed since British athletes last prepared to fight for Olympic medals on their home turf. London hosted the first Olympic Games after World War II, in 1948, when food was short and makeshift quarters the rule. Conditions are still pretty spartan for some athletes, but Wilcox isn’t complaining. “It’s just, like, amazing,” she says of her selection for London 2012. “I’m going to be able to say I’m an Olympian. It’s mental! I love it.”

Then again, her sport is a bit mental too. A meld of swimming and rugby, it involves teams of seven swimmers trying to score goals using fair means and, not infrequently, foul. (One dastardly tactic includes giving your opponents wedgies.) But here’s the craziest thing about water polo: devised by a Scot in the 19th century, it has featured in every Olympics, bar one, since its debut in 1900, when British men took gold. The women’s game was added in 2000. Yet in keeping with Britain’s national tradition of flailing away as other countries dominate the sports it creates and popularizes, the U.K. has not deployed an Olympic water-polo team since 1956 and has never before fielded a women’s team.

That will change on July 30, when Wilcox and her teammates grapple with Russia in their first-round match. Both the men’s and women’s teams have been granted automatic host-nation qualification, ensuring that water polo will be contested in Britain by Britons.

So too will whiff waff—although you may know the sport by a less euphonious name. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, during a reception to mark the hand­over to London, the city’s tousled mayor Boris Johnson ruffled his hosts by laying claim to table tennis, a game China has made its own. Balderdash, declared Johnson. It was “invented on the dining tables of England” and wasn’t called table tennis or Ping-Pong but “whiff waff.” “Virtually every single international sport was either invented or codified by the British … And I say to the Chinese and I say to the world, Ping-Pong is coming home.”

Johnson shares responsibility for ensuring that the homecoming is joyful. And the signs are good. London, with its instinctive distrust of the cosmetic perfection that characterized Beijing’s Games, stands ready—or as ready as it’s ever likely to be—to greet the influx.

The Olympics will assemble 10,490 athletes from 204 countries, attract up to 8.75 million spectators and capture worldwide TV audiences. These hordes will see a new side to the more than 2,000-year-old host city, quite literally. An enormous shiny spaceship has alighted in East London on the intersection of three hardscrabble boroughs—Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets—flattening slums and covering wastelands. The Olympic Park spans 2.5 sq km and houses eight of the 34 Olympic venues, including the main stadium, the water-polo arena and an aquatic center designed by Zaha Hadid, an architect whose buildings appear, like high divers, to defy the laws of gravity.

The action won’t all be confined to the city’s eastern reaches, with beach volleyball at the back entrance to Downing Street, the triathlon unspooling in Hyde Park and a marathon route that takes in many of the tourist sights. The Games will showcase London, but London, above all, will showcase the Games. Because from soccer to rowing, badminton to boxing and a host of other disciplines that at one time or another emerged or flourished on British soil, sport is coming home, with all the potential for elation, astonishment, despair, renewed frictions, rekindled passions and dirty laundry that homecomings typically entail.

Higher, Faster, Grumpier
London won the Olympics from betting favorite Paris in a fantastic photo finish—sort of the way the U.S. touched out France for the gold in the 400-m swimming relay in Beijing. Competing in a home Olympics drives the potential sense of achievement, and the pressure, to new levels. “The London Olympics mean so much to me—a home Olympics, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Jessica Ennis, Britain’s bright hope for the heptathlon.

Ennis will hurdle, high jump, long jump, shot put, throw a javelin and run races of 200 and 800 m, seeking to best her Russian rival Tatyana Chernova. Elsewhere there are compelling face-offs afoot, including Usain Bolt attempting to fend off Jamaican compatriot Yohan Blake in the 100-m sprint and Ryan Lochte trying to outswim fellow American and 14-time gold-medal winner Michael Phelps in the 200-m backstroke. Britain’s hopes for the top step of the podium ride with cyclists Mark Cavendish, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton; swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Keri-Anne Payne; and diver Tom Daley, among others. Yet if you were to broach the subject of the Olympics over a pint in a London pub, you might assume the enthusiasm of Ennis, Wilcox and others to be the exception, not the rule. Or to put it another way, if grumbling about the Olympics were an Olympic sport, the current host nation would walk away with the honors.

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