Mitt Romney asked and thousands of Londoners answered Friday night: This famously stolid city seems, dare anyone say it, genuinely excited to host the Olympics.
“I think we can finally say that it is a good thing that London got the Olympics,” said Debbie Lewis, a 41-year-old schoolteacher decked out in Union Jack regalia with her husband and two daughters at Friday’s opening ceremonies. “The world will see that we can put on a big show, and people are starting to support that.”
It wasn’t always clear whether London would shed its usual veneer of hard-bitten detachment and embrace the two-week spectacle – seven years and nearly $15 billion in the making. London’s papers had been filled with grumpy stories about security snafus, traffic tie-ups and weather worries. Romney caught that sentiment in his comments to NBC News that offended many Britons: “Do they (Londoners) come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? That’s something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.”
“Frankly, I thought it was out of order,” said Pam Kiddell, a retiree who attended the opening ceremonies with her sister.
Come together they did.
Enthusiastic crowds piled into Hyde Park and along the River Thames to glimpse the final legs of the ceremonial running of the Olympic torch, which, in what many described as a public relations masterstroke by the organizers, was carried across the country over the past 70 days by ordinary citizens nominated by the public. One was a former student of Lewis’s husband, also a teacher, which made “the community really feel a part of it all,” she said.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, the Games’ most bullish backer, said the Olympic flame had spread a “contagion of joy.”
“Something weird is happening in our city, my friends,” Johnson wrote in Friday’s Evening Standard newspaper. “In years to come anthropologists will anatomize the effect on the British people – so phlegmatic, so cynical, so generally seen-it-all – of this insignificant flicker of burning gas.”
Kiddell, a retiree from New Malden, southwest of London, said that when the torch passed through the town on Tuesday the streets were packed. When she and her sister rode the Underground subway into the Olympic site in East London on Friday, she found the trains running efficiently, the Olympic volunteers genial, the new stadium clean and easy to navigate.
The drumbeat of headlines about security short-staffing, traffic and the future of the costly stadium – which has no post-Olympics tenant – appeared to fade into the background.
“I think all the whingeing” – that quintessentially English word they use to describe their persistent grousing – “came mainly from the newspapers and the media,” Kiddell said.
To be fair, the flag-waving crowd inside Olympic Stadium represented a fortunate few. Besides the dignitaries from around the world – including Romney and first lady Michelle Obama – the spectators on opening night included people who’d won tickets in a much-maligned lottery process that began early last year. Those who bought seats on the secondhand market in recent days paid $2,750 apiece or more.
Many Londoners remain opposed to the Games. On Saturday, 35 civic groups are expected to march “against the corporate Olympics,” citing a laundry list of complaints including evictions to make way for Olympic Park, free tickets for VIPs and the questionable ethical and environmental records of the Games’ corporate sponsors.
For one night, however, as the sun set, lights illuminated the new stadium and rain (mostly) stayed away, London played the jolly host.
“Mitt Romney has done London 2012 a huge favor, I reckon,” journalist Alan Tyers wrote on the Telegraph newspaper’s Website just before the ceremonies began. “People who were previously ambivalent, or hostile towards the Games, now find themselves wanting proceedings to be a success.”