|London gets into the Olympic spirit with a handover party outside Buckingham Palace [GALLO/GETTY]|
After one of the most impressive modern games, the Olympic flag has been handed to London, marking the start of the four-year countdown.
The British capital took centre stage with an eight-minute presentation to the world during Beijing’s closing ceremony on Sunday.
The five-ringed flag was handed from Beijing’s mayor to the president of the International Olympic Committee, and then on to London’s mayor who waved it four times, signalling the official start of the London Olympiad.
It is not just the athletes who will be competing in Britain in 2012. Rania Wannous from Visit London, the city’s official tourism organisation, says the UK wants to show the world it can host a better party than China.
“Each Olympic games is unique, what we are committed to is really delivering an amazing and best-ever games. London showed the world we were ready, we were energised and we couldn’t wait for our own games,” she said.
But the British press has not been so positive. The Independent newspaper suggested that Britain’s “collective toes were starting to curl in anticipatory embarrassment” while the Telegraph claimed that nothing could top the Beijing games.
|Boxing gold medalist James Degale [GALLO/GETTY]|
Nevertheless, the organisers are not being put off.
Construction of the main stadium on an “island” in east London started in May, three months ahead of schedule.
They needed to start digging early to avoid any repeat of the Wembley fiasco.
In 2007, the national football stadium in north London finally opened – a year late – turning what was designed as a symbol of national pride into a source of national embarrassment.
The Olympic organisers are aware that any delays in the 2012 facilities would be an embarrassment on an international scale.
But there is already criticism of the stadium’s design. It is not impressing the British media in the way that Beijing’s Bird’s Nest wowed the world. The Guardian newspaper called it “plain and practical”, while The Times described it as “deflated architecture at an inflated price”.
The organisers insist they are not just designing the building for a fortnight in 2012. Once the global spotlight moves away from the Olympic stadium at the end of the games, it will be transformed from an 80,000-capacity arena into a 25,000-seater local venue for community sports.
Politicians and business leaders have made it clear that London is going to be a very different city in four years. A number of projects intended to change the lives of people living there are set to be completed in 2012.
A controversial east-west rail link has been forced through. The 30-year-old idea had been written off, because of the cost of digging a new route under London, but the Olympics changed that.
Large parts of Heathrow Airport are being rebuilt, despite the objections of local residents who do not want any further expansion at the site.
New London underground trains and lines will be unveiled. And a plan to put tens of thousands of free-to-use bicycles on the city’s streets is under way. Ideas which could have stayed on the drawing board are coming to life faster than most Londoners are accustomed to.
But the competition with Beijing to host the best Olympics ever does not come cheap. The estimated cost of the 2012 games has tripled since London was named as the host city in 2005.
This has not gone down well with the British press. “London could end up worse off after [the] Olympics,” read The Telegraph. “Don’t waste public money on sport,” urged The Times.
A large part of the cost of the games is being paid by Londoners. That has led some taxpayers to threaten not to pay the extra $40 a year.
Mark Wallace from campaign group, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, understands their anger: “People are looking forward to it, but they’re also concerned that if there are more budget problems, it’s going to hit all of us in the pocket. And it might look quite bad internationally.
“The Olympics mustn’t be used as an excuse just to splash as much cash as politicians want on everything. It’s got to be done sensibly and we’ve got to realise that the money comes out of people’s pockets.”
But the International Olympic Committee has made it clear that it does not want corners to be cut. The games are for the athletes, it says, not for the host city.
And the bar has been set high for the British athletes. They have a target of propelling Team GB into fourth place in the medals table, something unthinkable even a few months ago.
|After finishing fourth in Beijing, Team GB have high expectations for London [GALLO/GETTY]|
The bitter memory of Atlanta in 1996, when Britain picked up just one gold, was overcome in style in Beijing. The UK’s Olympians leapt into fourth place, with their best showing in nearly a century.
Earlier this year, the British Olympic Association was ridiculed when it said it wanted Britain to finish fourth in the 2012 games.
Until Beijing, Team GB had not managed to score better than tenth place since 1980.
Matthew Crawcour from UK Sport hinted that Britain could go for third in 2012: “A new benchmark has been set and nobody likes to stand still, so our job is to look at how we move things on.”
Much of this year’s success is being attributed to increased funding. One-quarter of the amount spent on National Lottery tickets goes to charity.
A large percentage of that is given to Britain’s Olympic hopefuls. The better a sport does, the more Lottery cash it gets.
The hope is that the impact of that spending will trickle down to the rest of the country. A survey by online researchers Opinium has found that the excitement of the Beijing games has already inspired one in 20 people to get into sport.
“It’s great to have a new set of role models out there, and role models are important because they’re the ones that bring people into sport,” Crawcour said.
“Even if they don’t make it, if they don’t become [Olympic champions like] Chris Hoy or Rebecca Adlington, the great thing is, it’s a healthy way to go and if we’re becoming a healthier nation then that’s positive.”
The games are also expected to bring new jobs to the capital. A huge global advertising campaign designed to attract visitors to the Olympic city has already started.
It is estimated that tourists traveling to Britain because of the games will give the country a $10 billion cash boost.
The games will be hosted in east London, the poorest part of the city, which lives in the shadow of the financial district – one of the world’s wealthiest square miles. The Olympics will bring jobs and visitors to this traditionally deprived area.
It will also bring much needed housing. The Olympic village where the athletes stay will be converted into affordable homes for Londoners after the games. The first residents will move in by Christmas 2012.
With less than half of Beijing’s Olympics budget allocated for the games, London knows that 2012 will never be as big and bold as 2008. So it is trying to impress the world in a different way.
London won its Olympic bid by convincing the world that the games would have a lasting legacy – an impact on Londoners outside the stadia.
“I witnessed the power of the [2000 Sydney] games to really transform a city and I think we’re going to see that even bigger and better in 2012 in London,” says Wannous.
And once the Olympic flame is extinguished in London, that is how organisers hope the success of the games will be remembered.