On The Ground: Outside the Olympic bubble, London gets ready to party

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I spent my first two days here in the Olympic bubble. I was in London, but I was in Olympic London — the land of temporary venues, Europe’s largest mall and a redeveloped industrial area.

Don’t get me wrong, the Olympic Park is very nice. The organizers, as the International Olympic Committee members noted Wednesday, did a very impressive job and may set the standard when it comes to developing sustainable venues for an Olympics.

But the Olympic Park doesn’t offer views of Big Ben, the Thames or Buckingham Palace. Those are in real London. And it wasn’t until Wednesday that I finally saw it.

It was 11 a.m., and I was stopped at a crosswalk after a Procter & Gamble press conference in Westminster. A red, double-decker bus was right in front of me. Big Ben towered behind it, ringing its bells at the top of the hour. A pack of tourists stared upward at the black and gold clock.

This was London. The London of postcards and royal coronations and the British government. Maybe not the heart of London for residents, but it is for visitors.

I looked down at my watch and realized I had an hour to spare before my next meeting. Rather than go early, I spun away from the Tube station and headed across the street toward Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey
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Sixteen pounds later, I had an audio tour pressed to my ear and was standing inside a church that was built more than 1,000 years ago. I stood before the golden altar that framed a Victorian painting of the last supper and absorbed one of the city’s most historic landmarks.

This, after all, is what excites everyone about the London Games.

It’s the rare convergence of one of the world’s oldest cities with one of its most modern events. Sports like cycling will be held on the doorstep of Buckingham Palace in the coming days. Two thousand years of history and contemporary sports will collide.

It wasn’t until Wednesday that I experienced that collision myself. I spent 45 minutes at Westminster Abbey, pausing longest in Poets’ Corner to see the resting place of writers like Dickens and Lawrence and poets like Cooleridge and Eliot. There’s a statue to Shakespeare there, too, though he’s not buried there. That didn’t stop a tour guide wearing a London 2012 polo shirt from telling visitors that he would be a major part of the opening ceremony.

The anticipation for that event is building steadily. Everyone is ready for the opening ceremony because they believe that is when the complaints will recede and the party will begin.

“It’s going to be an immense party,” said Nick Keller, a native Londoner who founded Beyond Sport, a non-profit designed to improve society through sport. “That’s the one thing this country knows how to do.”

Olympic insiders and London 2012 Chairman Sebastian Coe have been predicting for years that London would be like Sydney, which is still remembered for the legendary party atmosphere in Luna Park. The question that no one’s been able to answer is: Where will that party be?

“Soho and Trafalgar Square,” Keller said.

If he and the insiders are right, we could be in for one special Olympics. History, sport, Olympic-style parties. It all sounds good to me.

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