Chris Radburn, LOCOG, Associated Press
LONDON — With the flame comes the games.
After years of preparation and months of buildup, London's Olympic moment has finally arrived.
Royal Marine Martyn Williams is poised to rappel from a helicopter carrying the Olympic torch on Friday night, dropping down within the stone walls of the Tower of London. The grand entrance plunges the symbol of the games into the city's historic heart, bringing Olympic pageantry to the British capital that last held the event in 1948.
For Londoners, it ignites a time of tremendous excitement — as well as four weeks of extreme crowds and transport strains.
Organizers have tried to smooth the way. London Underground subway lines are festooned with big magenta and pink signs pointing routes to the Olympic venues. Cartoony ads with wide-eyed horses and beefy musclemen warn commuters to remember that Olympic competitions are taking place and to rethink their daily journeys. Barriers are being erected to mark the special traffic lanes for vehicles connected to the games — disparagingly dubbed "Zil lanes," after the limousines granted exclusive use of the outside lanes of Soviet highways.
Londoners who already struggle to get to work on any given weekday aren't convinced all will be well — and haven't been shy about saying so. The atmosphere of gloom has been segmented by the never-ending rain and a constant stream of headlines about the failure of security contractor G4S to provide enough guards.
The mayor has a message for the naysayers: "Put a sock in it."
"We've got an advanced case of Olympo-funk," Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in an op-ed piece in The Sun newspaper. "We agonize about the traffic, when our transport systems are performing well and the world's athletes are arriving on time. ... We gnaw our fingernails about the blinking weather, when it seems to be brightening up a bit — and anyway, it's England in July for goodness sake and a spot of rain never hurt anyone."
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 city's 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 Martin Polley said the flame's arrival in London has significance.
"The symbolism is that the country has now all had a piece of the Olympics, and now the capital takes over," he said.
It was only weeks ago that celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee sent Britons into a spasm of patriotic flag waving and "God save the Queen" singing as they watched a flotilla of 1,000 boats on the River Thames. Will the flame's arrival inspire the famously inhibited British to do it all again — to cheer and wave and weep and be inspired — as the torch relay winds through every one of the city's 33 boroughs?
Could be — if the first 62 days of the torch's travels are any indication.
The 8,000-mile (12,900 kilometer) torch relay has already been a cultural happening across the length of Britain, drawing crowds out to meet it wherever it goes. Spectators in rain ponchos have flash-mobbed to its side, hoping for that once-in-a-lifetime chance to touch a bit of history. Some have even stood by the side of the road to see the trucks that carry the torch between cities, as it fulfills a promise to travel within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of 95 percent of Britain's population.
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