London hosted its first Olympic Games by accident, in 1908: they were supposed to be held in Rome, but an eruption of Mount Vesuvius required the funds to be redirected toward relief and rebuilding. So it was London where the tradition of the opening ceremony began, the tug-of-war made its first—and last—Olympic appearance, and the official distance of the marathon was set: 26.2 miles, beginning at Windsor Castle and ending in front of the royal box in the stadium. Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the race officials.
The Games returned to London 40 years later, to a nation starved and scarred by war. Germany and Japan were not invited. These were the Austerity Games, the first since Hitler’s 1936 Games in Berlin. No new stadiums were built; athletes were asked to bring their own towels. Since food was still rationed, British Olympians resorted to whale meat for extra protein. Other countries pitched in: Denmark sent eggs, China sent oiled bamboo shoots and Mexico sent kidneys and tripe.
Austerity is back, and so are the Games—but the 2012 London Olympics were hatched long before the global financial crisis, and it shows across the city. The 10,490 athletes from 204 countries and nearly 9 million spectators flocking to see them will find that an enormous, shiny spaceship has alighted in redeveloped East London. The Olympic Park encompasses nearly a square mile and houses eight of the 34 Olympic venues, including an aquatics center designed by Zaha Hadid, whose buildings appear, like high divers, to defy the laws of gravity. A new high-speed train, the Javelin, will shuttle 25,000 passengers an hour from central London to the Olympic Park in just seven minutes.
For the athletes, the Games are at once unique and eternal. Women will box for the first time. Taekwondo participants will wear socks and clothing laced with sensors to register any blow a judge might miss. Runners will have individual speakers behind their starting blocks to hear the gun; otherwise those closer to the starter would hear it a wisp of a second before the others. Wisps matter. Events will be tracked by cameras that capture 2,000 images per second, live-streamed, tweeted, broadcast in 3-D, blogged, GIF’d and, as always, ballyhooed.
But no tool or trend or technology changes the hard math facing the athletes. We call these games, but they are anything but playful; Orwell called sports “war minus the shooting.” A lifetime in the water, on the track, the mats, the courts, is compressed into one race, one match, one game, where talent and training reckon with luck and chance. That’s what makes it so exciting, and exhausting, to watch: it comes only every four years, an eternity to wait for a second try, a replay, a rematch.
We use the term Olympian to exalt an effort that reaches past the extreme to mythic heights, where man and gods mingle and merge. In the triathlon of mind, body and spirit, the winners are the men and women who make the impossible look inevitable. In the pages that follow, we tell their stories—the roads they traveled, the bars they hurdled, the losses they accepted as part of the choices they made. Maybe there’s something of them in all of us. In any event, billions of people are waiting to watch the performances of a lifetime and to thrill once more to the muscular truth that struggle can yield to glory.