LONDON — It was a lot easier back in 1908, when Britain ruled both the seas and the tug of war competition. The first Olympics in London was a smashing success, indeed, with no gridlock and a home team that not only swept the tug of war but beat the upstarts from America in most other sports.
That parts of the competition were carefully crafted to give the Brits an advantage is mostly lost to history. The tug of war is also gone, long ago relegated to the graveyard of Olympic sports.
Gridlock is not, much to the frustration of Londoners, who complain as much about Olympic traffic jams as they do about the rain that returned right on schedule Friday just before the opening ceremony.
Seven years in the making and billions of dollars over budget, the Olympics aren’t for everyone in this venerable city. Tickets are so prohibitively expensive that organizers had to scramble to put people in unsold seats at the opening ceremony, and the wide tentacles of the games have disrupted everyday life, as the biggest sports event in the world is crammed into an already crowded city.
But on Saturday morning a British cyclist named Mark Cavendish is favored to hand the host country the first gold medal of the games in a 250-kilometer road race that will run past Buckingham Palace and may even be viewed by the queen. Some 1 million Brits are expected to stop grumbling about special Olympic travel lanes and other logistical issues for at least a few minutes to cheer him on in a flag-waving celebration of national pride.
Cavendish says he’ll be nervous, and with good reason. The success or failure of these games — at least in the eyes of the taxpayers funding them — may lie with the success or failure of the athletes wearing the home team’s colors.
“You can build the best aquatics center and the most unique and beautiful velodrome,” said Colin Moynihan, chief of the British Olympic team. “Ultimately, though, the British public will decide the success of the games by how many times the national anthem is played and how many times they see the Union Jack go up the flagpole at the medal ceremony.”
Moynihan’s job in recent weeks has been to dampen expectations about the home team, not an easy job since Britain is coming off its best performance in 100 years at Beijing. It’s kind of hard to do, though, when the British Olympic Association itself adopted the motto “Our Greatest Team” for the games.
It flies proudly on a banner at the athletes village, where most of the 541 members of the British team are housed. They’re a collection of cyclists, rowers, sailors and others largely unknown outside of a country whose job it is to deliver more than the 19 gold medals and 47 overall that gave Britain a surprise fourth-place showing in Beijing behind China, the United States and Russia.
The home team usually gets a surge in the Olympics, but that doesn’t make it any easier. If Cavendish can’t deliver on Saturday things could quickly go south. And with public expectations so high that oddsmaker William Hill is offering 3-1 odds on the home team winning 70 medals or more, these Olympics could end up being a painful and painfully expensive few weeks for the host country.
“We have felt the pressure ever since the games were announced,” said gymnast Louis Smith, who won a bronze medal four years ago. “Ever since we’ve been doing well and we won that medal in Beijing and the results have been happening, the pressure has been building.”
A few hours before the opening ceremony Friday, Moynihan sat in an office high above Olympic Park, his work for the most part done. While athletes scurried back and forth, he talked about how a country that for the better part of a century was a doormat at the Olympics has used an 80 million pound (about $126 million) annual distribution from the national lottery in recent years to steadily build its sports federations and compete at the highest levels.
These games will bring even more sports into the British conciousness, he believes, and spur even more young people to seek their own Olympic dream. He’s confident of the preparation, if not the actual results.
“The great beauty about sport is that the athlete is out there on his own,” Moynihan said. “I know we have all done the best job we can, but you can have the best prepared team possible and you never know what will happen.”
Earlier in the day, Big Ben rang out 40 times in celebration of these games. People around London joined in by ringing bells of all types.
For many, the Olympics are an inconvenience and a drain on national resources. But with the actual competition at hand there’s also a surge in patriotic pride, as witnessed by the bashing Friday of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for suggesting the games might not go exactly as planned.
Britain will rally around its winners. They, not the Olympic organizers, will determine the legacy of these games.
Now it’s up to Cavendish to start things off with the ride of his life.