Olympic officials are banking on local enthusiasm to make the games that start today in London a success after economic difficulties curbed spending on the event.
The U.K. is spending a quarter of what China allocated for the last games in Beijing. Today’s opening ceremony, which will feature 70 sheep, 12 horses and a reading of a 200-year-old poem, takes place in one of the U.K. capital’s poorest areas with the host nation mired in recession. Four years ago, 14,000 performers welcomed the world to Beijing beneath 30,000 fireworks at the Bird’s Nest.
“There’s a lot you can do without necessarily throwing the money,” Jordan’s Prince Feisal Al Hussein, a member of the International Olympic Committee, said in an interview. “Money won’t give you enthusiasm.”
The games officially get underway with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle showcasing Britain’s history to an estimated television audience of more than a billion. The show portrays the U.K. as a green and pleasant land before moving through its industrial revolution in front of public figures, such as U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at the Olympic Stadium.
“Each country should do it according to their culture, their custom, their mentality,” IOC executive board member Denis Oswald of Switzerland said in an interview. “Massive is the word for China. It’s not the word for here.”
Britain has allocated 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion) of public money to host the 17-day spectacle, compared with China’s $70 billion outlay on the Beijing Olympics. Still, the U.K. government had to step in to cover more costs after it couldn’t recruit companies to fund the event.
The games arrive as Britain’s economy shrank the most in more than three years in the second quarter, extending its first double-dip recession since the 1970s. Gross domestic product fell 0.7 percent from the first quarter, when it dropped 0.3 percent, the Office for National Statistics said July 25.
To deal with Britain’s fiscal problems, Prime Minister David Cameron has chosen austerity. U.K. Sport spends about 100 million pounds of public funds annually in high-performance sport. Those funds may shrink as the Conservative-led coalition government trims the country’s record budget deficit, including a 27 million-pound cut to the Olympic budget.
The U.K. might not have bid to host the 2012 games had officials known that the country would enter four years of economic turmoil, according John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority.
“We probably wouldn’t have gone ahead,” he told Bloomberg Television. “If one is honest and we said that in 2004 or 2005 ‘well the economy is going to be in a terrible state’ then politically it would have been a difficult decision to make.”
The use of existing or temporary facilities has helped London organizers keep costs down. The 15,000-seat beach volleyball arena at Horse Guards Parade is one such venue and is near Cameron’s official residence at 10 Downing Street.
Those stadiums will probably be full as tickets for London’s record third Olympics are close to sold out. There were about 50 tickets left for 27-million-pound Opening Ceremony this morning, according to London 2012 spokeswoman Jackie Brock- Doyle.
“It’s live and it’s for one time only,” said the ceremony’s director Boyle at a press conference today. “So I’ll never do one again. It’s extraordinary to be involved in it.”
Home advantage may help local athletes provide a welcome distraction from the economy. British gymnast Beth Tweddle said she’ll be counting on the lift.
“Normally when you go to a major championships, you’ve got your mum and dad, maybe with a flag, with a few other people in the audience,” Tweddle, 27, told reporters July 24. “It’s nice to have a crowd behind you.”
One of the most anticipated events will be Usain Bolt’s defense of his 100-meter sprint title against fellow Jamaicans Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay of the U.S. Only Carl Lewis, in 1984 and 1988, has won the event in consecutive games. The final is scheduled for Aug. 5 at 9:50 p.m. local time.
“The big story whether he wins or loses is going to be Bolt,” two-time Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “If he’s at his best, Usain Bolt is obviously the man to beat.”
In the swimming pool, 14-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps must fight off fellow American Ryan Lochte.
Phelps and Lochte swim in the heats of the 400 meter individual medley tomorrow morning. World record holder Phelps, who won the gold medal in the discipline at the past two Olympics, finished second to world champion Lochte in the event at the U.S. trials last month.
Phelps is chasing seven more gold medals after winning a record eight at the Beijing games, having collected six in Athens in 2004. He has the most gold medals in history and 16 of all colors, leaving him needing three more to overhaul Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record of 18 Olympic medals.
“Whatever happens here, think of all you’re going to be doing,” First Lady Michelle Obama, who will lead the presidential delegation to the opening ceremony, said at a breakfast with U.S. athletes today. “This only happens every four years so try to have fun, try to breathe in a little bit, but also try to win.”
Britain has around 540 athletes competing and is targeting 48 medals in at least a dozen sports and a top-four finish in the standings. The first 12 gold medals from 302 events will be awarded tomorrow. The closing ceremony takes place Aug. 12.
South Korea’s Im Dong-Hyun, who is legally blind, set the first world record of the games by breaking his own 72-arrow mark with 699 points as the men’s archery competition began today. He also teamed with Kim Bubmin and Oh Jin-Hyek to set a team shoot world record of 2,087 points with 216 arrows.
Romney, who is visiting the country, questioned London’s preparedness in an interview on NBC after reports of security problems. The remarks brought rebukes from Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
London is a fitting host, according to IOC President Jacques Rogge, whose group wouldn’t allow a moment’s silence at the opening ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Olympics, when 11 members of the Israeli team were killed in Munich by terrorists.
“Going to London, it’s going to the country that invented modern sport in the second half of the 19th century, included sport in its school curriculum, loves sport, knows sport well,” Rogge told reporters July 21.
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