LONDON – With the flame comes the Games.
After years of preparation and months of buildup, Londons Olympic moment finally arrived Friday night.
Royal Marine Martyn Williams carried the Olympic torch as he rappelled down from a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter into the Tower of London on the shore of the River Thames. The commandos grand entrance plunged the symbol of the Games into the citys historic heart, bringing Olympic pageantry to the British capital that last held the event in 1948.
Crowds lined the citys famed river banks to see the torch arrive.
For Londoners, the arrival of the torch ignites a time of excitement – as well as four weeks of extreme crowds and transport strains.
Londoners who already struggle to get to work on any given weekday arent convinced all will be well – and havent been shy about saying so.
The mayor has a message for the naysayers: Put a sock in it.
Speaking at a ceremony at the Tower of London, London Mayor Boris Johnson said the arrival of the torch would dispel any last remaining clouds of dampness and anxiety.
It will spread the crackling bushfire of Olympic enthusiasm throughout this city and the country, he said, as Kelly Holmes, a British double gold medal winner in 2004, toured the ramparts of the landmark, with the torch held aloft.
Ready or not, the games are a reality. Olympic banners in hot pink, acid yellow and lime green have painted London in neon. The tubby Cyclops-like mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, are dancing around central London tourist attractions in a desperate bid to be huggable. The citys famous red double-decker buses are sporting ads flogging the last of the unsold Olympic soccer tickets.
The stadiums themselves are nearly ready. At the athletes village, Cuba and Denmark have been the first to drape flags off their balconies. The Olympic clock ticking down the days in Trafalgar Square has reached single digits.
Olympic historian David Goldblatt, co-author of How to Watch the Olympics, said the flames arrival in London marks a key turning point.
I think it signifies the moment when everyone, whether for, against or indifferent, is thinking, Oh Lord, lets just get the bloody thing started, he said.
The flame has been to every corner of the United Kingdom ahead of its showcase moment at the Olympics opening ceremony next Friday. The 70-day journey, of which 63 have been completed, has included travel on boats, planes, horses and hot air balloons. Its been carried by Olympians and Paralympians. The queens granddaughter, Olympic equestrian competitor Zara Phillips, has shared the honor with 84-year-old Moira Starkey, who walks with two canes and was honored for completing a marathon last year by walking around her town hall 1,876 times to raise money for charity.
If the Beijing relay set up the 2008 Summer Games as Chinas coming-out party on an international stage, Londons relay has set up Britain as the community Olympics – not flashy or dashy, not big or spectacular, but warm and well attended.
Organizers had always assumed the world would be excited about the Games but were not sure what people in Britain would think – particularly given that taxpayers will be paying $14.7 billion to host the event at a time of economic austerity.
Theres also the fact that so much activity is focused on Olympic Park in London. There had to be some sense that other parts of the country were involved – that the Olympics also belonged to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
So far, an estimated 9 million people have viewed the torch.