As the giant clock standing proudly in the middle of Trafalgar Square creeps under 100 days this week, London will be grateful it is missing one of the most common aspects of previous Olympic countdowns.
Against the odds, the capital of the United Kingdom is already proudly announcing itself as ready to host the greatest show in sports, more than three months before the famous flame will be lit on the night of July 27.
Most Olympic preparations are beset with a variety of pitfalls and setbacks – Rio de Janeiro is already said to be well behind in its planning for 2016 – and while London has not been totally free of difficulty, all problems have been dealt with without too much fuss.
One hundred days is nothing more than a statistic. And the significance of this week and the impending announcement of the latest Olympic slogan will be little more than a symbolic reminder that the time when the greatest athletes in the world converge on one city is nearly here. The message from London – its organizers, citizens and administrators – is simple.
“We are ready,” said Lord Sebastian Coe, two-time Olympic 1500-meters gold medalist and chief of London’s organizing committee. “It is thanks to some remarkable people and their work ethic. The last time I saw that kind of focus was the group I had around me in my athletics career.”
London had a lot to live up to after the previous Summer Olympics in Beijing, where the lavish spending of the Chinese government created an extraordinary visual spectacle and a master class in organization excellence. London’s venues do not have the decorative splendor of the Bird’s Nest or Water Cube, but they are up, finished and have generally avoided scathing judgment, even from the notoriously skeptical British media.
When London was awarded the Games on a night of intrigue and drama in Singapore in 2005, when politicians and sports figures like David Beckham danced and celebrated, there was general delight from the British public, especially when those sorry French faces from the failed Paris bid were shown on television. But there were real concerns that the main stadiums could turn into a major problem.
England’s sorry reputation in regards to sports stadium construction was primarily thanks to the debacle over Wembley Stadium, the home of the England national soccer team, which was four years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of pounds over budget. The Olympic Park, however, has been relatively trouble-free with the main stadium not only delivered on time but likely to see future positive use as the home stadium of one of the city’s many major soccer teams.
The Olympic Stadium, situated in the inner-east part of the city, is the centerpiece of the Games and will host the Opening Ceremony and Closing Ceremony as well as track and field events.
“London has raised the bar when it comes to leaving a lasting legacy,” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said.
Of course, some of London’s venues didn’t need any work at all. The tennis tournament will be staged in the stately surrounds of the All England Club, home of the Wimbledon championships and the most iconic setting in the sport. A 198-years-old Lord’s Cricket Ground is host to the world’s oldest sports museum and will host the Olympic archery events, while the Games will get a Royal touch when beach volleyball is held in Horse Guards Parade, just a short walk from the Queen’s main residence of Buckingham Palace.
London has never tried to replicate the full majesty of Beijing. Even without the impediment of a tough economy and the public scrutiny on unnecessary spending by those in power, the city would not have had the resources to do so.
There is no sense that this has been done “on the cheap,” though. The last time the Games were in London, it was very much that way: The 1948 Games were held just after the end of World War II when food rationing was still in force in Britain and athletes were hosted in hostels and dormitory-style accommodation.
London 2012 will have a professional look to it, with hopefully more than a dash of British charm thrown in. The organizers, Coe in particular, are determined to keep the character of the country and provide a festival to warm the heart just as much as last summer’s Royal Wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton achieved.
Coe has the same passion as a politician as he did as an athlete with a fierce will to win. He is very much the public face of the Games, far more so than London Mayor Boris Johnson whose awkward flag-waving during the Closing Ceremony at Beijing was a mild embarrassment.
Any Olympics has its issues to deal with and London is no exception, although its troubles do seem considerably more minor than those of its predecessors. A protest during the University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge two weeks ago, when a man jumped into the River Thames and disrupted the race, caused a rethink in security policy. Also, the official mascots – one-eyed aliens called Wenlock and Mandeville – have attracted varying degrees of ridicule and pre-Games sales have been slow.
Then there was the official request sent to legendary The Who drummer Keith Moon to perform at an Olympic event celebrating great figures in British music history. Unfortunately, Moon passed away 34 years ago, although his manager did kindly offer to arrange a séance to see if he could be contacted.
uch headlines have created mirth rather than any genuine concern about London’s organizational capacity. The only serious doubts have surrounded the infrastructure changes promised by the city itself.
Security will be a strong issue, with 40,000 soldiers having been drafted in to beef up the safety presence in the wake of street riots last year and the threat of terrorist action. The day after London was awarded the Games in 2005, suicide bombers killed 52 people on the city’s transport system, but since then, London has come a long way. And its time is rapidly approaching.
The two-and-a-half weeks of the Games themselves will pose a huge challenge. For now, the city is as ready as it can be.