Sense of history and excitement as city seizes moment


One billion people tuned in last night as the 2012 Olympic Games opened with a dazzling display of music, fireworks and theatre, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor

WATCHED BY an estimated one billion people around the world, the 2012 Olympic Games opened in London last night with pageantry, music, fireworks and celebration.

Throughout the day, excitement mounted in the city, with complaints about traffic and the cost of hosting the Olympic Games largely put aside.

The final day of the Olympic preparations began at 8.12am yesterday when the bells of Big Ben pealed for four minutes – the first time for half a century that it has broken with its usual routine.

Beforehand, the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson, said the opening ceremony orchestrated by film director Danny Boyle would “blow you away and knock your socks off”.

Reflecting the buoyant mood in the English capital as the Olympic flame headed to east London, he went on: “Something weird is happening in our city, my friends. In years to come anthropologists will anatomise the effect on the British people – so phlegmatic, so cynical, so generally seen-it-all – of this insignificant flicker of burning gas,” he declared.

Besides the celebrations in Stratford, tens of thousands of Londoners and visitors gathered before giant TV screens at Hyde Park and other city locations last night. Ireland’s best medal hope, boxer Katie Taylor, led the Irish contingent into the Olympic Park – a huge and deserved privilege for her, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said earlier.

He was one of nearly 100 world leaders who were received at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II before the leaders were bussed to the Olympic Park for the opening.

Speaking before she formally opened the Games, the queen said the progress of the Olympic torch throughout the UK had drawn people together “as families and communities. To me, this spirit of togetherness is a most important part of the Olympic idea, and the British people can be proud of the part they have played in keeping the spirit alive,” she said.

Earlier, London taxi-drivers caused traffic delays for an hour when they staged a go-slow at Hyde Park Corner, in protest at being barred from using specially designated Olympic lanes.

After nearly 70 days on the road, the Olympic torch disappeared from view for some hours at 1pm, when it arrived at City Hall on the banks of the Thames, after being carried on the royal barge Gloriana.

One of those on board was Amber Charles, who, when just a teenager, delivered London’s bid to host the Games to the International Olympic Committee seven years ago.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who played a key role in that bid’s victory, said the Olympics offered the UK the chance “to put its best foot forward. Many countries have put on the Olympics, many countries will put on the Olympics, but I think tonight people will see that only Britain could put on the Olympics in quite this way and with quite this style. I think you’ll see, through that very traditional British reserve, coming very real British passion. And I think we’re going to show how we can raise the roof as well as raise an eyebrow,” he declared.

The current prime minister, David Cameron, spoke of the “huge sense of excitement and anticipation” that had built up in London over the last 48 hours.

Saying it would be “an incredible few weeks” for the UK, Cameron went on: “We’ve got a great past, a very exciting future and this is a great moment for our country, so we will seize it.”

The decision to deploy thousands of soldiers to secure the Olympic Park proved a winner with last night’s 65,000-strong audience, many of whom posed for photographs with the troops.

Spectators filed past Olympic Park security, with few delays. One of London Underground’s lines – the Piccadilly – suffered serious delays for a time because of signalling troubles.

The US Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who angered his hosts by questioning London’s readiness, went into retreat yesterday. “It is clear to me having spent a few days in London that London is ready,” he said by way of apology.