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Olympic excitement and angst intertwine in London as opening ceremony nears

From signs all over the city trumpeting the Games to taxicab drivers staging a work stoppage as a protest, anxiety in London is running high in anticipation of Friday's opening.

July 23, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • The Tower Bridge ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The Tower Bridge ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images )

LONDON -- It's time again. The every-four-year itch needs scratching. London will have its Olympics, and the tizzy is at high pitch.

The Olympic rings hang proudly under the Tower Bridge and over the Thames River. The airports are flooded with arrivals, and with people in official London Olympic orange and purple, slobbering over those arrivals.

"Can I help you, sir? Is there anything you need?"

That's a bit jarring. This is London, a huge city that understandably operates in the tone and temperament of Donald Trump. Warm and fuzzy feels funny. You brace for a hooligan and you get a teddy bear. It's like New York becoming Nashville overnight. "Y'all come on down and see our Statue of Liberty."

Every Olympic city has a trademark, some more memorable than others.

Montreal had a hole in the stadium roof and a huge crane just hanging there. Athens had piles of rubble hidden behind fences all over the city. They really hadn't finished, but they weren't fessing up. Dinner reservations in Barcelona were at 3 a.m. Sydney had trains, trains and more trains, all running on time. Seoul had Ben Johnson, and deserved a better legacy. Beijing had a tank in front of the main press center for a few days, apparently a reminder of something. Los Angeles had Peter Ueberroth and David Wolper. Atlanta had a bomb.

Or was it Atlanta was a bomb?

London is in the final stages of its self-evaluation, and the Games don't even begin until Friday's dancing and singing and flag waving signal us to put on our happy faces for the next two weeks. We will gladly do so.

The media has taken on the organizers on several fronts, including the oppressive feeling that comes with rocket launchers positioned on building roofs. Isn't the best security the kind you don't see? Can't these Olympic security people use the Clint Eastwood model? Strong and silent, but you don't want to make their day.

The British press has scrutinized the things it should: traffic, over-commercialization, the need for later use of venues for the public good. But as Gilda Radner used to say, it's always something.

Monday was a taxi drivers' work stoppage. They are unhappy because the Olympics have taken over many lanes on many roads as access for Olympic vehicles only. The taxi drivers expect fewer customers because the Olympics are transporting athletes, athletes' families, media, etc. Even if the taxis got those fares, they'd have fewer roads to use.

The work stoppage lasted from midafternoon to early evening Monday. The key tourist area around the Tower Bridge took an hour of passage time, where 10 minutes would be closer to the norm. Point made. Result unknown.

Now, in the eleventh hour, there is the usual rallying 'round the Olympic effort.

Patrick Kidd in The Times declared, "The time for kicking [the Olympics] is nearing its end … most of us will love the Olympics and prove that, while the British can be champion whiners, we can also win the gold medal for putting on a good show."

Adding to the English tizzy is the recent inconceivable victory in the Tour de France by a native son. When Bradley Wiggins cruised down the Champs-Elysees in Paris in the yellow jersey Sunday, it triggered not only an avalanche of British pride, but a string of delightful literary amazement from none other than Simon Barnes, The Times' chief sportswriter. (What a title. Is Plaschke feeling a pang of envy?)

Barnes wrote, "Wiggins, an Englishman, a man from Kilburn, has won the world's least English sporting event."

Barnes was just warming up.

"British cyclists in the Tour de France are a bit like French Cricketers. It's not that they're not good, they're not supposed to even understand what's going on out there."

And, "Wiggins has achieved the rare simultaneity of being both British and a French Hero."

Add to this the quivering emotion that stirred the United Kingdom when Andy Murray lost in the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer and then cried during the awards ceremony. The British seem not to understand that all players cry after playing Federer, but usually in the locker room.

Still, it is with this wave of emotion and pride, concern and hope — even trepidation — that London counts down to its Olympics. It is both understandable and not unlike every other city that has taken on this monumental task.

Rafer Johnson talks about the moment he got to the top of the stairs in the Coliseum to light the torch for the opening ceremony in '84. The stairs were narrow and unstable, so he asked to have a pole installed at the top step for something to grab onto.

"If it hadn't been there," he said, "I would have fallen off."

That's because, when he turned to face the Coliseum, from the most breathtaking of vantage points high above the peristyle end, the sight overwhelmed him.

"It was sensational, like nothing I could have imagined," he said.

Here's hoping that's how London feels when its Olympics end.

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