LONDON — Remember the 2,008 Confucian drummers at the opening of the Beijing Games? In London, look for a flock of sheep, three cows, two goats and 10 waddling ducks. Where there were choreographed Chinese philosophers reenacting the invention of the printing press, expect James Bond in a helicopter. And where dragons lurked in the Bird’s Nest stadium, watch out for a Voldemort vs. Mary Poppins smack down inside the glistening new Olympic Park.
But besides the undeniable stamp of British whimsy on a sporting event so often viewed in reverential terms, perhaps the biggest difference at Friday’s opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Games will be the Olympic stadium itself. In stark contrast with the monument to millennial greatness that was the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, the humbler main venue nestled inside a reclaimed urban wasteland in East London is largely collapsible, with a comparatively tiny permanent core of just 25,000 seats.
As a global audience prepares for nearly three weeks of competition set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most recognizable cities, it speaks to the wholly different mission of the London Games: To bring the ponderous, politicized and outsize Olympics back down to Earth.
“I think there is a bit of a responsibility on us to bring these games down to size and return them to a game for athletes, to hand them on in such a condition that other countries elsewhere around the world who have not had the Games thus far feel like they can be comfortable bidding for them,” said Hugh Robertson, Britain’s Minister for Sports and the Olympics. “I don’t feel they should be exclusively the reserve of global superpowers.”
Still, at a stated cost of at least $15 billion — or three times more than envisioned a decade ago — these are hardly the austerity games of London 1948, when visiting athletes were asked to bring their own food to a capital still healing from the Nazi blitz. The 2012 Games come during a renaissance of the only city to host the modern Olympics three times. This month’s inauguration of the 1,016-ft Shard tower — the tallest building in the European Union and fitted with a five-star hotel and $80 million apartments — symbolized London’s roaring rise into the playground of choice for Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks and American bankers, even as much of the rest of Britain sinks deeper into the doldrums.
And yet, where China went for shock and awe — hosting the most expensive Olympics in history to herald its arrival on the world stage — a Britain locked in recession and fully aware that its grandest days are behind it is trying to do more with less. London’s effort is set to be better attended than the Beijing Games while costing nearly half as much. In London and host cities across Britain, the 10,490 athletes from 205 nations will compete in more temporary stadiums this year than at the last three summer Games combined.
Nevertheless, there is still grand ambition afoot. By concentrating Olympic construction in a blighted area of East London, Britain has ignited the most targeted Olympic-related explosion of urban redevelopment since the rebirth of Barcelona’s waterfront in 1992. At the same time, organizers are tapping the games to fuel Britain’s resurgence as a cultural superpower. Particularly at the opening and closing ceremonies, this nation will remind the world that while its soldiers may be fighting and dying in Afghanistan, back home, this is still the Green and Pleasant Land of William Blake and Shakespeare, of Cruella de Vil and Capitan Hook, of Queen Elizabeth II and music royalty like Paul McCartney.
“We’re not the biggest country in the world, and we can’t do a China-style Olympics, nor could we do something on the scale of the U.S.,” said John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, Britain’s cultural promotion agency. “But I think we can offer a celebration. What you’re going to get, generally speaking, is an image of the U.K. as it is, warts and all.”
On a sunny day in the tough East London host borough of Newham last Saturday, Ron Cooper, 84, carried the Olympic torch through cheering crowds with the aid of a walking stick and a heavy dose of personal gumption. A lightweight boxer representing Britain in the 1948 Games, as well as a cockney-accented curmudgeon, he embodies the schizophrenic sense of spirit and antipathy with which Londoners have embraced these Games.
“Well, we’ve spent 9.3 billion pounds on it, so I guess we better go and watch now,” said Cooper, with no hint of irony. “It’s just too many people and too much traffic, all security lines and nuisance. But I guess it’s too late to turn back. After all this trouble, let’s just hope these bloody Games end up being fantastic.”
If the last few days are any guide, it may not be smooth sailing ahead. Before the Games have even officially begun, organizers chalked up their first major gaffe on Wednesday: They accidently ran up the South Korean flag for an early women’s soccer match between North Korea and Colombia, leading the furious North Koreans to storm off the pitch. Overcrowding and signal failures at St. Pancreas Station — the hub for travelers heading to the new Olympic Park — is already sparking transit back ups.
“Oh, how I wish Paris would have won,” John Reeder, a London black cab driver, moaned while stuck in a traffic jam next to one of the many lanes across London now reserved exclusively for Olympic VIPs.
With Britain facing an influx of 600,000 visitors and staging its biggest peacetime security operation ever, British Airways ran a series of “Don’t Fly” ads begging jaded Londoners not to skip town for the Games. The British press — an outspoken and aggressive bunch about as far from China’s state-controlled media as humanly possible — have savaged the government and crucified the British contractor G4S for last-minute security-staffing screw-ups. The BBC has derided the “fat cats” at the International Olympic Committee for spending lavishing on five-star hotels.
Tabloid columnists, politicians and average Londoners are bemoaning the raw commercial juggernaut that is the London Games, where corporate bigwigs scored the best tickets and only beer by sponsor Heineken can be sold at Olympic venues.
Mitt Romney, in London for big-ticket fundraisers and to attend the Games’ opening ceremonies, also stirred things up by seeming to question London’s Olympic spirit and readiness during a round of media interviews. In response, a defensive Prime Minister David Cameron alluded to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, which Romney ran, by saying “of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
Miffed by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s comments, the saucy Daily Mail retorted, “Who invited him?
But the English brought something else to the fiercely serious Olympics besides a litany of complaints: British humor. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, stars of the British comedy “Absolutely Fabulous,” debuted an Olympic special this week where they drunkenly ran around the main venue’s track. A new series called “2012″ is spoofing earnest Olympic organizers and envisioning such irreverent mishaps as the opening ceremony fireworks setting off the military’s surface-to-air missiles stationed around the Olympic Park.
On Friday night, the eclectic opening ceremonies — bringing together the likes of Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie and David Beckham — will be in the dangerous hands of Danny Boyle, the British director famed for movies about Scottish heroin addicts and a game-show-winning Indian slum dweller.
The message? Dorothy, we’re not in Beijing anymore.
“Come on, this is Britain. We’re not going to do thousands of marching Chinese,” said Jon Plowman, executive producer of the BBC show “2012.” “There’s just something about the British character that isn’t good at getting all excited about something like the Olympics. You have this thing in America of being all gung-ho and saying, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ and ‘Yes, we can.’ But we’re not like that. We say, ‘Well, yes, we might. It rather depends on the weather.’ ”
Washington Post staff writers Karla Adam and Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.