The Queen is set to officiate tonight at the Opening Ceremony, and to ring in the kickoff, Big Ben chimed today for three minutes -- the first time this most notorious of bells has been rung 'outside its regular schedule' since 1952, to mark the funeral of QE2's father, King George VI. With my roving and ex-pat eye, allow me dear reader to continue with close focus on London and the 2012 Games.
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We've got high (pressure) hopes
In the week leading to the Opening Ceremony, and for the first time this year, high-pressure weather is driving 80 degree sunshine. Cautiously folks across the British Isles hope for a warm and dry 2012 Games, fickle British weather notwithstanding. Well-soaked, green London is springing to life in the baking hot sun with a collective 'ahhh...' To be fair, this city is arguably the most verdant large city in the world. Greater London has over 150 square miles of public parks, gardens, cemeteries and squares. As with the amazing parks and open spaces in and around my hometown of Palo Alto, parks here are well loved and utilized.
Hyde Park and many others play host this summer to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a free city-wide cultural celebration running day and night in parallel to the Olympics and Para-Olympics. And this week the Olympic Torch Relay nightly party was held on good old Tooting Common. We walked the few yards from our home to greet the passing torch, and even had our photo taken with it (gold chrome, dotted with holes and surprisingly light without the requisite gas canister). This is all certainly a very long way from my youth of attending concerts at Lucie Stern Community Center and May Day parades down University Avenue.
2,000 year-old megopolis
Athletes began arriving last week for the Games, and only two out of 100 first-day buses got lost transporting them from Heathrow across the heart of London to the Olympic Green Zone, err, Park. Those are pretty good odds in my book. The layout of London is somewhat akin to stretching the Professorville and Crescent Park neighbourhoods of P.A. over the entire San Francisco peninsula, minus most of the freeways. 35 square miles of meandering roads, bridges and tunnels, jumbled higgledy-piggledy every which way, with most of the roads two lanes wide, and scant few boulevards ('dual carriage ways') or freeways ('motorways').
The 2,000 year-old configuration of London was determined by rivers, creeks and horse trails defining where roads and buildings eventually went up -- no neat grid here. Our neighbourhood is relatively new, having been built around the turn of the last century. This city's landscape was last imposed upon en masse during the Victorian era, when the extensive over ground, and later underground rail systems were set down. Sat-Nav systems work fine here, unless, as with the two wayward buses, the destination - in this case the Olympic Park -- hasn't yet been loaded to the system.
Palo Alto's Olympics connection
As covered in the Palo Alto Weekly and elsewhere, Palo Alto Police Officer Ben Lee is coaching the U.S. Badminton team at the London Olympics. He is a 1992 Olympian and is extremely passionate about his 'beloved' sport, as I've experienced from the short communications we've exchanged. Each of the three athletes on his squad is a bona fide star of the sport. Rena Wang won silver for her doubles play at the 2011 Pan American games. Howard Bach is the 2005 World doubles champion along with the final player, Olympic Gold medalist Tony Gunawan. Keep tabs also on table-tennis newcomer Lily Zhang from P.A. and the ever-competitive (and recent Wimbledon semi-finalists) Stanford tennis doubles brotherhood Bryan.
Is it safe?
Brits were recently awarded the "gold medal for grumbling" by the nation's Culture Secretary, with the unsurprising consistent hum of discord over cost, traffic/transport and security. Probably the most notable hiccup in the run up to the Games is the recent contingency call-up of several thousand additional British military personnel to participate in event security. Security staffing headcount requirements changed last winter, and the private security firm hired to source and train these staff was unable to meet its obligation or communicate their shortfall sooner. Troops stationed across London were always a key component of what is, by most measures, a solid security operation.
London, the center of all this attention, is a living textbook and signpost of epoch-defining events like the two world wars. Visible reminders abound of the Blitz of London, which destroyed one million homes. A common sight today is a 1950's building dropped incongruously into an otherwise unbroken terrace of Victorian-era houses. Too often these gaps were created by Hitler's bombs and rockets that fell for 57 consecutive nights (and 71 nights total, spanning eight months). Many Underground stations served as bomb shelters, and some suffered direct hits, as was the case one mile from our home. On October 14th, 1940, Balham tube station was hit by a massive Nazi fragmentation bomb, and 66 people lost their lives in this tragedy that was depicted in the 2001 novel Atonement (and 2007 film of same name).
Shaken, not stirred
On Monday, 60,000 people were implored by Danny Boyle to #keepthesecret at the Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal. For this event Boyle intends to avoid the pitfalls of getting 'stuck in the past,' and is largely focused on celebrating the U.K. today, in all its diversity and quirkiness. From what I've gathered, and one would rightly expect, some of the three-hour show is based around British icons. Expect to see something from Britain's greatest band (Beatles), greatest author (the Bard), greatest public institution (NHS) and greatest movie star (Bond, James...you know the rest). Motocross was cut last week to shorten the running time, and ongoing animal rights assurances were repeated, but otherwise the ceremony is primed to kick things off by highlighting the people and history of the United Kingdom.
That one doesn't need reminding of war in London partially explains some of the concerns people have around the 2012 Games. Many consider these Olympics to be the largest peacetime security operation in Britain's history. There's ground-to-air missiles posted around the East End, street and shopping center parking removed for miles around and strict airport-style security at all ticketed events. Add to that a 100-mile network of Olympics-only VIP lanes (even non-Olympic government officials are barred) and you've got a populace on full alert - or at least with both eyes open. From my countless conversations with colleagues, familiars and strangers, the overwhelming sense here is excitement and anticipation for a fantastic London 2012 Games. See you after the lighting of the Olympic Torch.