“Doctor Who” star Matt Smith carries the Olympic torch through… (Getty Images/LOCOG )
CARDIFF, Wales — The rest of the world may think the Olympics begin in London on Friday, but Gerry Toms knows better.
The first event of the Summer Games, a women's soccer match between Britain and New Zealand, actually takes place Wednesday afternoon, two days before the official opening ceremony. And it won't happen in England but rather here in the Welsh capital, 130 miles from London.
Toms is manager of the enormous Millennium Stadium that will host the debut match and 10 others over the course of the Olympics. Workers were putting final touches on the venue as the clock ticked down and Cardiff awaited its moment in the global spotlight.
"As I tell my team, 'Look, the game will kick off at 4 o'clock, and failure is not an option,' " Toms said.
Cardiff is one of a handful of British cities cast into minor Olympic roles that local officials hope to parlay into a boost for their images and their economies. As the country grapples with a double-dip recession and painfully high unemployment, a little gold dust from the Games — or even silver or bronze — would offer some welcome relief.
But a long-term windfall such as increased tourism could prove elusive. Experience has shown that staging the Olympics is often as much a curse as a blessing for host nations, which find themselves saddled with big bills and empty arenas once the glow of the Games has faded.
For sideshow cities such as Cardiff, Manchester in northern England and Glasgow in Scotland, all of which are putting on Olympic soccer matches, the reflected glory from London could vanish even faster.
Cardiff is certainly trying to whip up some excitement — among its own residents as much as the crowds expected on match days. A huge set of Olympic rings looms over the front lawn of City Hall; banners touting the Games flutter from every lamppost.
But general enthusiasm is hard to detect, even though Wales is contributing more athletes than ever to Britain's Olympic squad, "Team GB." In a recent poll, a majority of people in Wales expressed doubt that the Games would bring any benefits, prompting a local columnist to berate her compatriots for their selfishness and negativity.
"While [athletes] stretch every sinew to peak on the biggest sporting stage in the world in the next few weeks," Carolyn Hitt wrote in the Western Mail, "the rest of us are apparently asking that perennial Welsh question: 'But what's in it for us?' "
The answer seems to be relatively little so far, at least in monetary terms.
Out of the billions of dollars spent on goods and services to put on the Olympics, Welsh companies managed to win a mere $60 million in contracts, much less than Wales' population of 3 million would seem to warrant. Firms in England dominated the field.
Officials here say that cashing in on the Games has been made harder for Wales because of some selfishness on the part of organizers in London. The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, or LOCOG, refused to let Cardiff make a bigger to-do about being the starting point of the Games for fear it would detract attention from the lavish opening ceremony, said Jonathan Jones, the Welsh government's representative in London.
"I don't want to get into an argument with LOCOG — they have a job to do — but it is disappointing that we failed to come to an agreement on what we could have done … to give Cardiff a bit of a boost," Jones said.
"They took the view that Cardiff was only just one of the cities where the football was going to be played … and they felt that why should Cardiff get this extra publicity?" Jones said. "We felt we should; they felt we shouldn't."
Ticket sales for the soccer events in Cardiff, with the exception of two sold-out matches later in the competition, have been frustratingly lackluster. (It doesn't help that the national sport in Wales is rugby, not soccer.)
Only about 40,000 tickets have been snapped up for the opening match in Millennium Stadium, a gleaming 13-year-old venue that can hold 70,000 spectators. That has triggered reports that the entire top tier of seats will be artfully covered up, to avoid embarrassing TV shots of a half-empty arena.
Still, Olympic visitors should inject some money into the local economy, especially through restaurants and shops. Hotels have reported only a modest uptick in bookings, probably because Cardiff is an easy day trip from London, just two hours by train.
Travel time is about the same to industrial Manchester, where the city's tourism chief acknowledged last month that he didn't expect the Games to result in a big jump in visitor numbers, despite the hype about long Olympic coattails.
"I'm not getting a sense that people are particularly excited that it's going to generate a great deal of revenue," said Brian Sloan, chief economist for the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
In the end, the indisputable focal point of the Games will be London, not ancillary cities. "It does exactly what it says on the tin. It is 'London 2012,' " Sloan said.
Jones still hopes for a spillover effect here in Cardiff.
"If you're interested in the Olympics and sport, then go to London," he said. "Enjoy London, a fantastic city. And then get on a train or a bus, or hire a car, and two hours down the road you have another capital city that has a different flavor and history altogether."