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LONDON 2012: THE SUMMER OLYMPICS

A Sporting Time

Three-time host London says it's aiming to put the athletes -- and their feats -- front and center. And this year, for the first time, every participating country has a woman competing.

July 27, 2012|Philip Hersh
  • Swimmers practice in the Olympic pool a day before the opening ceremony for the London Games.
Swimmers practice in the Olympic pool a day before the opening ceremony… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

LONDON — When the London Olympics open Friday night, they should begin to write a story free of the preconceived global narrative that has accompanied all recent Summer Games.

Beijing 2008 was China's coming-out party. Athens 2004 was a return of the Games to their roots. Sydney 2000 was Australia's chance to show off the beauties of a faraway land. Atlanta 1996 was the unlikely choice as host as the modern Olympics celebrated their centennial. Barcelona 1992 was an ode to the joy of post-Franco Catalonia. Seoul 1988 was essentially the same story as Beijing.

In London, the first three-time Olympic host, center stage really should belong the entire time to the nearly 10,500 athletes competing in 26 sports, with the city's already well-known landmarks and history as set decoration.

So swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt return to the spotlight, cyclist Bradley Wiggins hopes to go from Tour de France yellow to Olympic gold, Ko Uchimura may show he is the greatest gymnast in history, the U.S. women's eight will row with a six-year unbeaten streak, and archer Im Dong-hyun shoots for gold despite beginning legally blind in one eye.

Theirs are the stories London Olympic Organizing Committee Chairman Sebastian Coe, a two-time Olympic champion runner, wants the 2012 Olympics to tell. His goal has been for everyone working on the Games to have the attitude of a NASA employee whom President Kennedy met and asked what his job was. The man took a break from mopping a floor and said, "I'm helping put a man on the moon."

"At the end of the Games, I want every athlete to be able to look me in the eye and say, 'My performance was not impeded by anything that you guys failed to do,''' Coe said. "I want them all to succeed, all to reach their potential."

After seven years of near-constant (and often justified) complaints from British media about things like cost overruns in the billions, inconvenience and ticket unavailability, the local media has done a 180 since Sunday and exhorted everyone to enjoy the athletic feats in the next 16 days.

For the first time, a woman will have a chance to perform those feats for all 205 countries at the Olympics, as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei finally caved in to global pressure against gender discrimination.

For the fourth time in the last seven Summer Olympics, the United States chose a woman, fencer Mariel Zagunis, as its opening ceremony flag bearer. For just the third time, it has a woman, four-time Olympic basketball gold medalist Teresa Edwards, as its chef de mission, or team leader. For the first time, Team USA has more women (268) than men (261).

"It [all] just goes along with so much that is going on this year, the 40th anniversary of Title IX," Zagunis said.

Zagunis said she was less concerned about the possibility of having a long walk in the rain Friday than of tripping and having the flag hit the ground. The forecast minimizes the chance of precipitation in the London area until Sunday.

Ironically, after two months of unseasonably low temperatures and almost incessant rain that had everyone worried about how such conditions would affect the Olympics, sun and near-90-degree heat since Tuesday have caused rails to buckle and delayed trains.

"Obviously, our fingers are crossed for everything, from the weather to the transport infrastructure," British Prime Minister David Cameron said at a news conference held outdoors in Olympic Park on Thursday.

The opening ceremony reportedly will include Paul McCartney, Mary Poppins banishing Lord Voldemort, a "bed dance" tribute to Britain's National Health System and live animals, which International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge felt compelled to promise will not be slaughtered. Anyone in the U.S. with an Internet connection will know all about the spectacular, directed by Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"), before NBC begins its delayed telecast Friday night.

There is considerable interest over whether Zagunis will follow the U.S. tradition of not dipping the flag to the head of state -- or in this case, Queen Elizabeth II. That began, coincidentally, at the 1908 London Olympics, and it probably will continue, even if some criticize it as an example of U.S. arrogance.

"You never know what is going to happen," U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Scott Blackmun said Thursday.

Also unresolved, given the IOC's refusal to allow a minute of silence to honor the 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Summer Games, is whether there will be a spontaneous commemoration by spectators and athletes when the Israeli team enters the stadium.

The competition, which has two fewer sports since the IOC banished baseball and softball after 2008, actually began Wednesday with women's soccer matches. In the opening U.S. game, Alex Morgan scored twice in a 4-2 win as her team rallied from a 2-0 deficit.

"When it comes to the meaning of the Olympics, it's about sport," Zagunis said. "It's a matter of celebrating the athletes and competition and the beauty of what we are all here to do."

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phersh@tribune.com

twitter.com@olyphil

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