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.

That’s about as close to Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic vision as it gets. To the 19th century aristocrat who founded the modern Games, first staged in 1896, the goal was always “increasing friendly understanding among nations.” London 1948 amply fulfilled this brief, bringing together countries that had recently been embroiled in war. London 2012 will bring together countries locked in crises at least as unfathomable as any the 20th century produced. That promises more than a few headaches for British diplomats. Syria, for example, is expected to send a team of 10 competitors, including show jumper Ahmad Hamsho, nephew by marriage of one of President Bashar Assad’s brothers.

The Games’ ruling body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), seeks to avoid the politicization of the Games, refusing to acknowledge that the event is irremediably political, a proxy on field and track, in the pool, on the pitch and in the ring for bigger struggles. And countries vie to stage an event that more often than not leaves the hosts indebted—hello, Athens—because they buy into the notion that a successful Olympics delivers longer-term benefits, in trade and tourism but also in positioning. Beijing’s Games, costing an estimated $44 billion, showcased China’s economic muscle. “Beijing was spectacular. The Chinese pulled out all the stops,” says Richard Peterkin, the IOC member from St. Lucia. “The feeling was that it was going to be hard to top.”

The four-hour opening ceremony in Beijing boasted a cast of more than 15,000, including 2,008 drummers, all carefully chosen. At the last minute, Chinese officials banished a snaggletoothed child who was selected to sing a solo ballad in favor of a prettier girl who lip-synched. But looks aren’t everything. “There was one significant thing missing,” says Peterkin. “When the Games were over during the day, the city was not a lively city, with people mixing and mingling. Most of us believe there will be a huge difference in London because of its cosmopolitan nature and the liveliness of its nightlife. It’s going to be brilliant.”

It’s also going to be expensive. London didn’t aim to outspend Beijing. Its original bid envisaged a cost to the taxpayer of $5.1 billion. The deadly terrorist attacks on London on July 7, 2005, the morning after the city celebrated winning the Games, provided a nasty reality check on security costs alone. A budget of $14.42 billion was agreed upon in 2007; last month, the U.K. government proudly announced that the Games would come in almost $780 million “under budget”—a mere 183% above the original figure.

Whatever the final outlay, the 2012 Olympics are unlikely to run with military precision or dazzle with scale. That wouldn’t be in tune with British sensibilities. But there’s one commodity that will be deployed lavishly: humor. For every solemn moment, there will be two belly laughs; in every exasperated queue, there will be at least one joker coaxing fellow sufferers to smile.

The urge to poke fun extends even to the organizers. Real-life London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe played himself in an episode of Twenty Twelve. Details released in advance of the Games’ opening pageant suggest its director, Oscar-winning British filmmaker Danny Boyle, aims to feature London’s snaggle­toothed, vibrant, make-and-mend diversity rather than creating the sanitized version the tourist board would doubtless prefer. His vision of Britain will be realized with help from audience members and live farmyard animals. (The livestock “will be treated very well,” Boyle assured his animal-loving countryfolk. “Far better than the volunteers.”) The leaked sound­track includes British classical composer Edward Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” as well as the Sex Pistols. “I think [the ceremony] will be divisive,” says Morton, approvingly.

Britons staring at the last inch of bitter in their pint glasses may try to tell you that’s true of the whole Games. And there will be protesters at the fringes while a larger constituency from the host nation will vote with their feet against the Olympics by scheduling holidays abroad. At least a decade must pass until we can judge whether the development of the Olympic Park in East London has helped unify the metropolis or created a herd of rust-prone white elephants.

Yet Britain is a culture that not only invented many sports but also lives them, if most often from the comfort of overstuffed armchairs or in betting parlors. Take away sporting metaphors and you would render many Britons speechless. Take away sports teams and they’d have no allegiances. Take away sports stars and they’d have no one to admire or mock. Now the biggest sporting stars in the world are coming, homegrown or from distant lands. Brits may pretend not to be overly impressed by the cavalcade heading their way. Don’t believe it—even in London, especially in London, the excitement is building.

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