London Olympics 2012: Let the bells ring... we've finally started!
It's taken seven years and cost £9.3bn – but at last the Games are under way. Tom Peck and Cahal Milmo report on the day London got excited
Big Ben tolled for the longest time in 60 years, the Olympic torch made its penultimate journey to City Hall and, in the words of London 2012 chief Lord Coe, Britain got "excited as hell".
The last hours before the opening of the 30th Olympiad in east London were dominated by increasingly frenzied anticipation of the feast of sport and entertainment that lay ahead. Ten years of planning were over – and the sprinkling of minor glitches could be easily laughed off, not least when the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, accidentally launched a hand-bell at a group of women. The last of the expensive tickets for the opening ceremony was finally shifted at 5pm, meaning the event could be declared a sell-out.
The International Olympic Committee President, Jacques Rogge, praised the regeneration which has taken place to create the Olympic Park in Stratford. He said the Games would have a "tangible legacy" with, uniquely, "no white elephants".
Eighty heads of state and government leaders flew into London on charter flights (private jets were banned) to attend a reception at Buckingham Palace before being loaded on to buses for a trip across the capital to the VIP seats in Stratford's new stadium. Some of these will prompt protest and demonstration over the coming days; others, such as the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, drew enthusiastic crowds. Her husband's challenger in this autumn's US presidential elections, the Republican Mitt Romney, continued to draw criticism at home and from his British hosts following his badly received remarks yesterday about the public's attitude to the Games.
The day's celebrations had begun in eccentric fashion. At 8.12am, church bell-ringers across the country, led by Big Ben, began three minutes of national bell-ringing. Many members of the public improvised, emerging into the street to clatter together pots and pans in sight of bemused neighbours. Mr Hunt, aboard HMS Belfast, was perhaps a little over-enthusiastic in trying to demonstrate his bell-ringing prowess to the television cameras – the bell flew off the handle, almost hitting a woman nearby.
"Oh, oh dear! Are you all right? Health and safety!" remarked the minister. "There we are, disaster averted."
The first world records were broken at the Games, by a blind man, from South Korea.
In the Olympic archery at Lord's cricket ground, the first non-football sporting action got under way, taking place behind closed doors – as is customary – much to the disappointment of hundreds of archery fans who arrived brandishing counterfeit tickets. Others came believing it was entry on a first-come-first-served basis, which it wasn't, and they were refused admission to the ground.
But the event was not without sporting note. The South Korean archer Im Dong-Hyun, whose sight is so poor that he is classified as blind, broke his own individual record in the 72-arrow event. Then, along with team mates Kim Bubmin and Oh Jin-hyek, they set a new team mark for 216 arrows – smashing the world record by 18 points.
The sun, as predicted, did not stick around and was replaced by muggy, humid conditions – but that will be a relief to the swimmers, who were over-heating by the side of the pool in the new Aquatic Centre.
The South Koreans, who have featured prominently in recent coverage of the Games after the mix-up over the use of the North Korean flag in the football at Hampden Park, suffered an embarrassment of their own yesterday when one of their sailing coaches was sent home for drink-driving.
Jae-Cheol Lee, 38, had been at a welcome party in Weymouth, Dorset, base to the sailors. He reputedly carried on drinking after the function, and then drove back to the Portland Olympic Village at midnight. At 5am his coupé veered across the road, near the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, and in full view of the bolstered police presence surrounding the venue. By the end of the day, he was on a plane home.
For some athletes, there was still time for heartbreak after years of endeavour. A Russian gold medal favourite for weightlifting – the sport which best captures the "fortius" of the Olympic movement's "Citius, Altius, Fortius" motto – Oksana Slivenko, withdrew after reportedly suffering a training injury.
Taxi drivers, whose disgruntlement with the Games Lanes has not been dimmed by their largely smooth operation since Wednesday, staged a further protest at Hyde Park Corner.
At the Israeli Embassy in London, and in Trafalgar Square, ceremonies were held to remember the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches murdered in the Black September terrorist attack 40 years ago in Munich.
The absence of TV crews at the world record efforts in the archery may have been a blessing in disguise: Sky News's Kay Burley again surpassed herself as she repeatedly she referred to the "Main Olympics" while interviewing a wheelchair-bound Paralympian. Para comes from the Greek meaning beside or alongside, and the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes are run alongside the Olympic Games, and are contested by several thousand athletes who are not, in fact, paralysed.
Some of the drama of the day was provided outside London. In Weymouth, a fire broke out in the men's toilet of a pavillion reserved for VIPs attending the opening ceremony for Olympic sailing events, forcing the cancellation of a press conference and the evacuation of 300 people.
Ms Obama joined Team USA athletes for breakfast at their University of East London training camp. "Enjoy it, stop, breathe, take a look around, moments like these don't come around very often," she advised them. "But make sure you win." She wasn't joking.
By and large, Britain's foreign guests seemed thrilled to be in London – albeit bemused by the odd local custom. The American broadcaster CNN issued a guide for Americans in the British capital, warning, "In some bars you may see something called 'Pork Scratchings' for sale. These are not for you."
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