In My Opinion

Summer spectacle: Pomp, pageantry, starpower ahead at Olympics

 

With pageantry and star power, London hopes to make the Games memorable

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

Triathletes swimming in Hyde Park’s Serpentine. Volleyball players diving onto a makeshift beach at the Horse Guards Parade.

Marathoners running past Buckingham Palace. Tennis stars not wearing white at Wimbledon.

Athletes will transform iconic landmarks into sporting venues at the London Olympics, a summer spectacle that promises to be rich in pomp, circumstance and history.

Expect to see Queen Elizabeth II waving from the royal box during Opening Ceremonies on Friday. And perhaps the Rolling Stones performing at Closing Ceremonies on Aug. 12.

Who will light the cauldron flame? Sir Steve Redgrave? Dame Kelly Holmes? Roger Bannister? Daley Thompson? Derek Redmond and his father? David Beckham? Or it could be a young athlete symbolizing London’s theme — “inspire a generation.”

Much stickier questions confront the 2012 Games. Security has been a concern since July 6, 2005, when London upset Paris in the bidding to be host. Less than 24 hours later, celebration turned to horror when suicide terrorists’ bombs ripped through three subway trains and double-decker bus, killing 56 people.

Transport worries have already hit traffic-choked London, where the creaky Tube system experienced yet another breakdown in May when a train stalled underground on the Jubilee Line, a main Olympic artery, and passengers walked out through the tunnels.

At least the persistent and record rain that has drenched England for the past three months has disappeared, for the moment.

As for competition among the 10,500 athletes from 204 nations in 26 sports, can the U.S. keep its place at the top of the medals table, or will China — which surpassed the U.S. in the gold medal count four years ago — assert its might? How many golds will swimmer Michael Phelps win in his last Olympic hurrah? Will Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt break any of his world records? How will the audiences react to women’s boxing and the two women added to Saudi Arabia’s team after worldwide pressure was exerted on the kingdom? Will the home team — known by its self-deprecating public for excellence in the “sitting-down sports” of cycling, rowing, sailing and equestrian — make Britain proud?

London is the first city to host the modern Olympics three times. In 1908, the Games were reassigned to London from Rome after Mount Vesuvius erupted. After 12 years of no Olympics, the post-war 1948 “Austerity Games” were held in London. Athletes stayed in military housing, Germany and Japan were banned, and Bob Mathias and Fanny Blankers-Koen were big winners.

Sandwiched between the 2008 Beijing and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, London has also used the Olympics as a lever for redevelopment. The former industrial wasteland and garbage dump of East London have found new life. The 500-acre Olympic Park, hub of the Games, is dotted with bird houses and bat boxes. Surrounding neighborhoods of artists, immigrants and street markets blossom.

Sports venues will be an assortment of historic, temporary and newly constructed facilities.

The emphasis is on practical sustainability and avoidance of the white elephants that have saddled previous hosts with enormous debt and little-used arenas. “Our vision is to use the power of the Games to inspire change in this country,” said Sebastian Coe, the gold-medal-winning middle distance runner and former Parliament member who led London’s bid to the finish line.

The sleek aquatics venue will be the stage for the world’s top swimmers and divers, including swimmer Rebecca Adlington and diver Tom Daley of Britain. Michael Phelps isn’t likely to win eight gold medals again — but don’t put it past him to go seven-for-seven.

If Phelps wins three medals of any kind, he will supplant Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina, who won a record 18 medals in 1956-1964, as the most decorated Olympian.

The rivalry that has brewed for years between Phelps and Ryan Lochte will be one of the most tantalizing of the Games. Lochte beat Phelps in two races at the 2011 world championships, the 200-meter freestyle and 200 individual medley. That seemed to motivate Phelps, who said he has rediscovered his work ethic in the past year and is ready to peak for his Olympic finale.

The American women — led by Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer — are strong enough to upstage rival Australia.

On the track, the rivalry between Jamaica and U.S. sprinters has been intensifying for eight years. The Americans failed to win gold in the 100, 200 or the 400-meter relay in 2008 while Bolt put on a show with three world records. He said he wants to become “a legend” by winning three more golds, although his coach said it may be too chilly for record times and training partner Yohan Blake could dash that goal.

Americans Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix would like to have Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown chasing them.

In fact, the U.S. track and field team has a goal of winning 30 medals, and the men have a chance of sweeping the shot put, 400 meters and 400-meter hurdles. Lolo Jones is seeking another chance — and a chat with Prince Harry — after crashing over the penultimate hurdle while leading her 100-meter race in 2008. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis and marathoner Paula Radcliffe are popular picks among British fans to win medals — all being made at the Royal Mint.

In gymnastics, the U.S. and China pick up where they left off in Beijing, where the winning Chinese girls looked suspiciously young and some were later found to have altered birth dates. The much-improved American men have an outside shot of upsetting China for team gold. Michigan’s Jordyn Wieber, world champ last year at age 16, is favored to succeed Nastia Liukin as all-around winner while for Japan’s spectacular Kohei Uchimura, the men’s title is his to lose.

One rivalry sure to prompt deep patriotic feelings (or at least interesting tabloid headlines) is Britain vs. Argentina in men’s field hockey. It has been 30 years since the Falklands War, and an advertisement featuring an Argentine hockey player in the Falklands on “Argentine soil” was condemned.

Soccer will be especially popular in football-mad Britain, as will rowing in Eton, sailing in Weymouth, tennis on the All-England Club’s grass, track cycling inside the velodrome and road cycling on London’s streets.

Baseball and softball have been dropped from the Olympic program, women’s boxing has been added (five weight classes) and special dispensation was given to shooting, which would otherwise by prohibited by Britain’s gun laws.

The city will rely on a massive security operation manned by 10,000 police, 17,000 troops and agents from the country’s crack intelligence services. Missile launchers have been set on rooftops, and the Royal Marines have conducted exercises on the Thames. The government, already embarrassed by a manpower “fiasco’’ by the company contracted to provide guards, has dispatched extra troops.

Despite persistent complaints about the ticketing process, Londoners have been in a festive mood celebrating the queen’s Diamond Jubilee — her 60th year on the throne. She is a keen equestrian fan, and Prince William and Kate plan to visit a variety of competitions.

Expect to see and hear many references to Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning film that will be rereleased around the country before the Olympics. A play based on the film is scheduled to premiere in the West End.

Director Danny Boyle ( Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Trainspotting) is organizing the Opening Ceremonies, entitled “The Isles of Wonder.” A short film starring Daniel Craig as James Bond will be shown. Paul McCartney will sing.

Already receiving bad reviews are the London 2012 mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville (animated droplets of steel) and its zigzag logo, which The Sun had redesigned by a monkey. Iran complained the logo spelled the word ‘Zion’ and threatened to boycott.

Closing Ceremonies will be a tribute to British music with surprise performances.

“Music is something we’ve been very good at for the past 50 years,” said artistic director Kim Gavin.

And London hopes its third Olympics will be as memorable as all those hits.

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