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.

There are the usual provocations—the scramble for tickets that left many locals disappointed, the prospect of transport disruption, the expense, especially in the middle of Europe’s economic turbulence. Closer to home, Scotland is getting rebellious again and planning a referendum on independence in 2014. (Team GB’s soccer squad is notably Scot-free.) In other quarters of the kingdom, the notions of undifferentiated “Britishness” and “Team GB” are not uncontroversial either.

London’s winning the Games has also coaxed out the curious British ambivalence about winning anything. John Morton, writer-director of the BBC TV mock­umentary series Twenty Twelve­—which purports to chart the behind-the-scenes Games preparations, led by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville in the fictional role of “head of deliverance”—muses that Britons’ impulse to talk down the Olympics may be connected to Britain’s discomfort with talking itself up. Self-deprecation is in the national DNA. “Whenever I go to Italy or France or Spain or New York, all those places have a much clearer sense of who they are and what they are, unapologetically, than we do. I think to be British and to be at all thoughtful means being apologetic,” Morton says.

His compatriots are flinching at the prospect of saying sorry for the temerity of taking on the Olympics—and there have already been more than a few glitches. Twenty Twelve’s imaginary Olympic countdown clock failed at its launch; the real Olympic countdown clock, in London’s Trafalgar Square, stopped hours after its launch (and, by unhappy coincidence, less than a day after the airing of the clock episode of Twenty Twelve). Far more seriously, G4S, the private company that was contracted to supply security staff, admitted only 16 days before the start of the Games that it had failed to recruit sufficient numbers. The shortfall will be made up by thousands of members of the British military who might otherwise have expected to be spending their leave watching the Olympics on the telly.

The episode reinforced British self-doubt, but history shows it’s the self-doubters who are usually proved wrong. Barroom wisdom asserted that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee would prove a damp squib. Last month, the 1,000-boat flotilla to mark the anniversary turned out to be, meteorologically speaking, the washout that British Cassandras had predicted. It also attracted 1.2 million rain-sodden spectators, a TV audience of 10.3 million and highlighted the flip side of national pessimism. Forecasts may dampen expectations, but when the day dawns, no matter what the weather, nobody parties like the Brits.

Every Loser Wins
Homegrown pessimists were also out in force before the London Olympics of 1948, as the nation embarked on preparations. London had staged a successful Olympics in 1908, but 40 years later, impoverished and war-scarred, the city faced daunting challenges. The weather lived down to expectations. A record-breaking heat wave soon gave way to relentless rain. Equipment had to be scrimped, accommodations improvised. Athletes took unpaid leave to compete and weren’t always thanked for their efforts. Alan Geldard, a member of the British team that won a cycling bronze, returned to work after the Games only to be sacked for taking the time off.

Team GB’s rations were meager compared with the diets enjoyed by delegations from countries less impacted by World War II. The U.S. athletes thrived on steak and fresh fruit flown in from California, while the Chinese imported bamboo shoots. British Olympians did enjoy an enhanced daily allowance of 3,900 calories—the same amount that was granted to coal miners—but many of the calories came in tinned or powdered form.

Beef-fed Americans won the most medals. Team GB came 12th out of 59. The chorus of the specially commissioned 1948 Olympics song encapsulated British attitudes about that inevitable result: “Let us be glad/ But not because of the winning.”

It’s a refrain that might have been scripted by Twenty Twelve’s Morton—and in 2012, it still reflects Britain’s relationship with sporting glory. Winners will be lionized, but losers will be taken just as closely to the nation’s hearts. “We’re good at losing,” says Morton.

Wilcox echoes that point as she describes the development of the women’s water-polo team from rank outsiders who used to lose matches by 10 or 20 goals to rank outsiders who lose only by a goal or two, thanks to funding from Britain’s national lottery. That improvement is reflected in her team’s odds of 250 to 1 at bookmaker William Hill, compared with the unfunded U.K. men’s team, at 1,000 to 1. Wilcox doesn’t rule out a scenario in which the British underdogs triumph. “Everyone says the Olympics is somewhere anything can happen, and I genuinely believe that’s true,” she says. But Team GB isn’t focusing on winning. “It’s all about the process, not the outcome.”

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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