LONDON - The world city that needs no introduction but could do with an Olympic-sized pick-me-up in the midst of painful economic recession launches the 2012 Summer Games with a spectacular opening ceremony Friday that faces a unique challenge: to be as memorable as Beijing's planet-wowing, money-no-object extravaganza of 2008.
The British capital will set itself apart, as it has so often down the centuries, by being different. Beijing's curtain raiser featured 2,008 pounding drummers and a cauldron-lighter who seemed to float in the air of the Bird's Nest stadium. London will have 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens and nine geese — recruited by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle along with a cast and crew of 10,000 to present a quirky, humorous and vibrant vision of quintessential Britain, its history and future to an expected global television audience of 1 billion.
London is not the same as it was when the games were awarded seven years ago. Its serenity and confidence were shaken by riots last year and by terror bombings on the transport network that killed 56 people the day after the International Olympic Committee picked London over Paris in 2005. In London, the Olympic Games have come to a sprawling, historic metropolis that lives and breathes sports, with a population more global and diverse than perhaps any other, but which still feels it needs the Olympic spotlight to help secure its future as one of the world's great cities.
In depicting Britain, warts and all, Boyle has drawn from William Shakespeare, British pop culture, literature and music, and other sources of inspiration that will speak not just to Anglophiles but to people across the globe. One segment involves actor Daniel Craig's James Bond, and former Beatle Paul McCartney will lead a sing-along.
Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" show will celebrate the green and pleasant land of meadows, farms, cottages, village cricket matches and bird song, but also dwell on Britain's darker industrial past. That's not a surprise from a movie director who depicted Scottish heroin addicts in "Trainspotting" and Indian poor in "Slumdog Millionaire."
As well as thousands of athletes and performers, some 60,000 spectators will pack the Olympic Stadium. Political leaders from around the world, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, and a sprinkling of European and celebrity royalty will also attend.
According to the Sunday Times, one section will feature characters from children's fiction classics including "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan" — and a showdown between Lord Voldemort, the villain of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books, and a horde of flying magical nannies based on Mary Poppins.
"I would have thought the difficulty is how you cram in all that is great about our country," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday. "Whether it is sport, art, literature, history, contribution to world events, there are so many things to celebrate about our country that packing all that in to these hours must be a pretty tough task. But I am confident they have done a good job."
Many of the juiciest and most significant details from the three-hour show, including the identity of the person or people who will light the Olympic cauldron — if, indeed, there is one — remain secret. That is, in itself, remarkable for the first social media Olympics, where the urge to tweet anything and everything is putting more scrutiny than ever on organizers and the 10,902 athletes from 204 countries.
Most will return home after 16 days of competition as they arrived: the pride of family and friends but still unknown to the wider public, unsung practitioners of sports — think archery, synchronized swimming, wrestling and the like — that get little attention for 206 weeks before blossoming in the two-week Olympic festival.
Medallists will be guaranteed recognition and perhaps fame and fortune for the luckier ones, especially the more than 300 who win gold. A hundredth of a second here, a centimetre there, in the pool or in the shooting gallery could make an athlete a household name. Their gold medals will be largest of any summer games and, at 400 grams (14 ounces), the heaviest, too.
Amputee runner Oscar Pistorius and women boxers will get headlines for being Olympic pioneers. But for other established stars who fail in quests to retain or win more Olympic titles, London will mark the end or the beginning of the end of their careers.
U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps insists these will be his last games. The 14-time gold medallist will go out with a bang, aiming to claim the unofficial title of greatest Olympian ever from Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. She got 18 medals. Phelps has 16, and seven opportunities in London to overtake her. His rivalry with U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte promises one of the most compelling dramas of London. They will swim against each other twice: in medleys over 200 metres and, on the first full day of competition Saturday, over 400 metres in the Aquatics Center with its ceiling that slopes like the underbelly of a whale.
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the other standout star from Beijing, wants to become a sports legend on a par with Jesse Owens, Pele or Muhammad Ali by retaining his Olympic titles in the 100, 200 and sprint relay. But the World's Fastest Man faces stiffer competition, this time from countryman Yohan Blake and American rivals Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin.
In Beijing, the geopolitical significance of China's rise as a global superpower was as much the story as the sports. London, the first city to host the event a third time after previous games in 1908 and 1948, could in contrast be a purer Olympics, more about the athletes than the context. Could be more fun, too, without the backdrop of international concern over China's human rights record.
Big questions are how London's transport system will cope with millions of spectators and whether grumbling Britons will get behind their Olympics as they did for this year's celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee. The monarch will officially open the games at Friday's ceremony that will start at 9 p.m. with the sound of a 27-ton bell forged at the 442-year-old Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which made London's Big Ben and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.
Lavishing more than 9 billion pounds ($14 billion), triple the estimated cost when London secured the games in 2005, in the midst of severe economic storms in Britain and Europe has provoked pointed and persistent questions about whether the expense can be justified and whether the games will have a lasting positive impact for the host city and for Britain.
The most obvious legacy for London is Olympic Park, with the 80,000-capacity stadium that will host the opening ceremony and other new venues. It is built on formerly derelict, polluted industrial land in the east of the city that bore the brunt of bombing in World War II and, for centuries, concentrated London's stinkiest industries and its poor.
Other benefits from the July 27-Aug. 12 games, particularly the power of the Olympics to inspire kids to take up sports and to aim high, might not be obvious for years.
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