TURN BACK a page and linger for a moment on that opening picture, taken at a London Olympics test event last year. It captures as well as anything what to expect from the Games of the 30th Olympiad as they unfold over the next few weeks. As backdrop there's the old, the Admiralty building from which Britain's Navy once commanded an empire. In the foreground spreads the new, the tricked-up sport of beach volleyball, introduced in 1996 by an International Olympic Committee hungry for younger viewers and higher TV ratings. London will deliver a Games marked by just such contrasts, the kinds of juxtapositions from which the host city draws its energy—old and young, near and far, sacred and profane, all of them cheek, as it were, by jowl.
Outside the Stratford tube station in the East End a pair of women in burkas distribute FIND OUT ABOUT ISLAM leaflets, just steps from the Ann Summers lingerie and sex-toy shop in the mall through which spectators will pass when walking to the Games' main venue hub, the Olympic Park (page 56). Near Hyde Park, site of the Olympic triathlon and open-water swimming, the house at 25 Brook Street, in which George Frederic Handel once composed, sits next to Jimi Hendrix's old digs at Number 23. Londoners themselves live amid a jumble of races, religions, national origins and even classes. (For its higgledy-piggledy residential patterns the city can thank the host of the 1936 Olympics, Adolf Hitler: Postwar housing projects were built on bombed-out patches of the city, and the Nazis hadn't discriminated.) Spectating during the Games promises to bring leaders and commoners particularly close: Members of the royal family will practically be able to watch the rowing from a Windsor Castle window; if not for a temporary screen, a fan in the stands at beach volleyball could peer into the garden of 10 Downing Street.
It's not certain that Her Majesty will be obliged to sit through the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen, banned by the BBC upon its release in 1977 for lyrics such as "God save the Queen/She ain't no human being." But that punk anthem appears on the leaked playlist of music under consideration for the opening ceremony. So welcome to 21st-century London: For every tradition-encrusted crew race at Eton, tennis match at Wimbledon and soccer game at Wembley, count on something jarringly new, such as Iraqi immigrant architect Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre, which resembles a butterflyer coming up out of the water; and the Emirates Air Line funicular, which will shuttle fans over the Thames between the North Greenwich Arena (formerly the O2) and the ExCeL Centre; and the 376-foot, red, latticed-steel sculpture-cum-observation-tower, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, which looks out over the Olympic Park. Indeed, as London, site of the 1908 and '48 Games, becomes history's first three-time host city, sometimes the new will literally superimpose itself on the old, as photos from each day's action are to be projected that night on the facade of the Victorian-era Houses of Parliament.
For centuries humans have groped to describe London, and in the end most return to the same feature: its inhabitants, so many and so motley. "People-pestered," a Renaissance writer named Nicholas Grimald called it. To Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the city was "a roost for every bird," and novelist Evelyn Waugh described it as a place where "the English are hard to find." These accounts (from the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively) hold up strikingly well today. And to think that Birmingham (for 1992) and Manchester (for '96) mounted bids to host the Olympics. Seriously: Manchester? Birmingham? England was never going to get the Games. London—inevitably, rightly, with more than a third of its population foreign-born—did.
London is the Olympic rings of cities: many colors, intertwined. Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), wants every visiting athlete to feel that he or she is "walking out at home." By that he means two things. First, that the organizers have done all they can to protect the interests of the competitors. "They've devoted half their lives to that moment," says Coe, who won gold medals for Great Britain in the 1,500 meters in 1980 and '84. "We can't ever let them become victims of our own shortcomings."
The other part of "walking out at home" is atmospheric. "We want stadiums full of passionate fans," Coe says. "Given that London has people of 300 nationalities who speak more than 200 languages, we have a good chance to create a section of home fans at every venue for every competitor in the world."
Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle will lead the opening ceremony, and his production is likely to dazzle, even if it's budgeted at only a third of the cost of Beijing's four years ago. If the Brits do one thing well, it's spectacle. They pull swords from stones, and disappear into brick walls at train stations, and somehow, in 1912, installed a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in the middle of the night, so the sun would come up on something that seemed to have appeared by magic. The world has already had a foretaste of the Olympic showmanship it can expect. At the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert in June, a graphic installation firm, the same one retained for the Games, projected images of a range of British dwellings, from Georgian terraces to council flats, on the facade of Buckingham Palace while Madness performed its hit Our House. During its relay tour of Britain, the Olympic flame has been conveyed on a zipline over the River Tyne, by a rappeller down the side of a concert hall in Gateshead and along the beach in Scotland where the opening scene of Chariots of Fire was filmed 32 years ago. In this same spirit many venues will cater to the cameras, with a bank of seats sometimes sacrificed to fetch a view. From the Equestrian Centre in Greenwich Park, Sir Christopher Wren's Old Royal Naval College will fill the frame alongside Canary Wharf skyscrapers jutting up in the distance.
Amidst all this pageantry it's worth remembering the journey that London has made since being awarded the Games on July 6, 2005. The next morning explosives carried by Islamist suicide bombers ripped through the transport system, killing 52 people and injuring some 700 more, many of them as they read newspaper accounts of the city's Olympic coup. Soon the worst economic crisis in 80 years plunged the country into a double-dip recession, and budget cuts left the social fabric so frayed that riots erupted last August.
To many Londoners, the Cool Britannia era of optimism and upswing that began in the 1990s ended with the attacks on 7/7. This summer will offer the city its first chance to reclaim some of that swagger. That's why most Brits have shrugged off the passing glitches, like the countdown clock in Trafalgar Square that froze with 500 days to go, and the invitation to play at the closing ceremony extended to former Who drummer Keith Moon, who died, before he got old, in 1978.
While Coe leads the effort through these hiccups, chin up and eyes on the prize, London's bluff mayor, Boris Johnson, works the rear guard, calling out skeptics as "gloomadon poppers" and "dismal johnnies." To be sure, the naysayers have their fodder. LOCOG is asking the world's oldest subway system to carry three million extra passengers each day. Organizers doled out slots in the torch relay to sponsors, sometimes giving mid-level marketing reps a moment of glory at the expense of ex-Olympians, youth mentors and volunteers. In Britain, policing unauthorized use of the Olympic rings and marks has reached Orwellian levels: In one case a choreographer was forced to change the title of an original commission for the Birmingham Royal Ballet from Faster, Higher, Stronger to Faster, full stop. Tickets have been an endless source of complaints, most recently after revelations that foreign Olympic officials and agents have scalped from their allotments. And of course, the carpers insist, it'll rain. Probably. But even after the wettest June in a century, Boyle has ordered up artificial clouds for the night of Friday, July 27, to make sure his tableau of British history, Isles of Wonder, won't lack for verisimilitude. Rain: not a bug but a feature!