Describing the bare-bodied spectacle unfolding in the storied heart of London, the newspaper columnist seemed almost to be in heat.
“As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalized by Canaletto,” panted the column in Monday’s Telegraph, adding that the women “are glistening like wet otters.”
It wasn’t the typical political commentary one might expect in a leading daily newspaper, but then there’s little typical about the writer: London Mayor Boris Johnson.
With his peculiar mix of Oxford erudition and schoolboy humor, Johnson has emerged as these Olympics’ shameless cheerleader-in-chief. Gleefully sidestepping worries about security staffing and cost overruns, Johnson’s full-throated, jingoistic enthusiasm for all things London has won over some skeptics and buoyed a city that long questioned its readiness to host these games.
With his country not doing as well as expected so far in the medal standings, Johnson, a conservative recently elected to a second term, could come off as London’s biggest winner if the games conclude without a major hitch. A poll published Monday by the Independent newspaper found that Johnson was the leading choice of Conservative Party members to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron as party leader, perhaps setting him up for a shot at Britain’s top political job.
“It’s hard to think of an event that would play better to his particular character attributes than the Olympics,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics. “This is supposed to be a festival of sport and international friendliness . . . and he is just good at that sort of party stuff.”
Pleasantly disheveled with scarecrow hair, always ready with a quip, Johnson has become a fixture at Olympic events across the city. There he was at the men’s synchronized diving finals on Monday, tweeting his support for the British pair. And there he was Tuesday at beach volleyball – naturally – joining a raucous crowd in doing the wave.
The mayor, whom nearly everyone here refers to as “Boris,” drew laughs when he dismissed the U.K.’s meager medal tally. “I think we are showing great natural restraint and politeness as host nation in not hoarding the medals more so far,” he said, according to the Independent.
Last week, on the eve of the opening ceremonies, it was Johnson who responded most volubly to Mitt Romney’s comments questioning whether London was prepared to play host, telling a crowd in Hyde Park, “He wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are!”
To be sure, Johnson has had little to do with the Games’ success so far: London won the Olympics well before he came to office in 2008, and most of the new infrastructure projects, including rail lines to manage the traffic, were begun under his predecessor, the liberal Ken Livingstone.
But while others deal with doping allegations and empty seats at Olympic venues, Johnson gets to play the genial host. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that Johnson extended an invitation to the Olympics to Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., which is battling a major phone-hacking scandal at one of its London tabloids.
Johnson’s skyrocketing profile has prompted speculation that the 48-year-old might one day seek the prime minister’s job, but he’s brushed off the possibility in characteristic fashion. Appearing on David Letterman’s show last month, Johnson said, “I have about as much chance as being reincarnated as an olive.”
Liberal voters predominate in London, but Johnson squeaked out a second term in the May elections even as conservative politicians elsewhere took a beating. One longtime supporter of the liberal Labor party on Tuesday called Johnson “a national treasure” and said he was “the only conservative I’ve ever been tempted to vote for.” (She didn’t want to be named crossing party lines.)
“He still manages to get re-elected, and we do tend to think that’s because of his personality,” said Coralie Pring, a senior research analyst with ComRes, a polling firm.
Johnson was born in New York City – he moved to London when he was 5 – and experts say that voters see a certain American quality in his relaxed optimism. A journalist before he went into politics, Johnson likes mixing it up in public, in part through his weekly column in the Telegraph.
Of course, his mouth sometimes gets him into trouble, as when he came into criticism for taking an annual salary of 250,000 pounds, or nearly $400,000, for writing the column. He called the amount “chicken feed.”
A decade ago, writing in the Telegraph while he was a member of Parliament, Johnson lampooned a visit to Congo by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, saying that “tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief.” Johnson later apologized for the remark.
Randy comments about beach volleyballers, however, remain fair game.
“He’s not exactly angling for female votes with remarks of that kind,” Travers said. “He’s projecting the view of him being a normal human being speaking in a way that normal people really do speak.”