Sammy Lee remembers it vividly: food rationing, bombed-out buildings, rubble.
The year was 1948, and London was hosting the Olympics amid severe austerity in the aftermath of World War II. Lee, an American diver, and fellow amateur athletes slept on cots at local air bases and schools, brought their own towels and were ferried to events in old London buses.
"We didn't mind," said Lee, who won a gold and bronze medal in the Empire Pool. "It was the spirit of the Olympics. We were there to compete against the best."
Sixty-four years later, Lee will return as a spectator next month when London welcomes the world again.
Saying these 2012 Olympics will be much different is in itself a gold-medal understatement. This will be a $14.5 billion extravaganza featuring multimillionaire professionals and global stars like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, shiny new purpose-built venues and a revitalized east London.
Britain's biggest peacetime project also entails a massive security operation. To guard the games from terrorist attack, the country is deploying 35,000 safety, police and military personnel, surface-to-air missiles on rooftops, fighter jets, helicopters and two warships on the River Thames.
Yet, put aside worries about trouble and whether the city's stretched public transportation network can transport millions of extra riders, and this should be London's finest hour. A chance to throw a rousing five-ring celebration, a global bear hug that restores the festive atmosphere lacking at the past two Olympics, in Athens and Beijing.
"London this summer is going to be the place to have a party," Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson said.
The city will provide a stunning mix of old and new:
— Beach volleyball players diving across the sand in Horse Guards Parade, practically on the doorstep of the prime minister's 10 Downing Street residence.
— Marathon runners and road cyclists winding past Buckingham Palace.
— Tennis stars dueling on the Centre Court grass at Wimbledon.
— Archers firing their arrows at the hallowed Lord's cricket ground.
— Sprinters and swimmers competing in brand new arenas erected in a once-derelict area of east London brought back to life as the Olympic Park.
Headlining the show will be 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries — none bigger than — who else? — Bolt and Phelps. What can Bolt possibly do for an encore after his jaw-dropping three gold medals and three world records on the track in Beijing? Can 14-time gold medalist Phelps — winner of a record eight golds in the pool in Beijing — hold off American rival Ryan Lochte in what Phelps says will be his final Olympics?
Also at stake will be the top spot in the medals table between the world's two sporting superpowers: the United States and China. The U.S. won the most medals (110) in Beijing, but China took the most golds (51). Expect a tight race on both fronts this time.
Away from the playing fields, the city is dressing up, from the giant Olympic rings on Tower Bridge, to the party venues and giant screens in Hyde Park, to the landscaped gardens inside the 560-acre Olympic Park.
Four years ago, China used the Beijing Olympics as a coming-out spectacle to underscore its presence as a world power. It spent $40 billion on the games, erecting iconic venues like the Bird's Nest stadium and the Water Cube natatorium and staging a grandiose opening ceremony.
But London never tried to compete with the epic scale of Beijing, largely because of a global economic crisis that triggered bailouts, mounting debt and political turmoil across Europe.
Still, the Olympic budget of 9.3 billion pounds ($14.5 billion) is more than triple the estimated cost when London secured the games in 2005. The government says the games are expected to come in about 500 million pounds ($778 million) under budget. The local organizing committee's separate privately financed operating budget of 2 billion pounds ($3.1 billion) is on course to be met through sponsorships, TV rights, merchandising and ticket sales.
"This is the first time London got the games with no particular crisis around, but then they marched right into the worst financial crisis since before World War II," senior International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound of Canada said. "But they have succeeded remarkably well in spite of that."
London organizers look more closely to the 2000 Sydney Games as their model, hoping to channel the same vibrant energy, passionate crowds and Olympic buzz.
While Beijing suffered from empty seats at some venues and a disconnected public, London promises full arenas and knowledgeable spectators. The capital has residents of countless nationalities and cultures, providing a "home" crowd for teams from Namibia to Nepal. Live sites, music concerts and other attractions should keep visitors entertained day and night.
The tone will be set at the opening ceremony on July 27 at the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, a three-hour spectacle directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame. Inspired by William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," the ceremony will include a segment involving Daniel Craig's James Bond and a closing act by former Beatle Paul McCartney.
Boyle has revealed that the opening sequence will feature an idyllic British countryside setting complete with live farm animals — 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens and nine geese to be precise. He's even promising a cloud that produces rain — in case there isn't enough of the real stuff around.
The Economist magazine couldn't resist a little zinger: "Opening ceremonies are a country's opportunity to sell itself to the world. Britain appears to be selling irony."
Queen Elizabeth II, fresh off a round of Jubilee celebrations marking her 60 years on the throne, will formally open the games. The big question: Who will light the cauldron that burns until the closing of the games on Aug. 12? Britain's five-time rowing gold medalist, Steve Redgrave, is the bookies' favorite, followed by soccer star David Beckham — the global icon who was bypassed for Britain's Olympic soccer team despite playing a key role in bringing the games to his hometown.
Roger Bannister — the first runner to break the 4-minute barrier for the mile in 1954 — is another possibility for lighting the flame. But who's to say the honor won't go to an unknown? A young athlete from one of the poor boroughs surrounding the Olympic Park, a symbol of youth and the future generation that was the central theme of London's winning bid?
The queen won't be the only royal in the Olympic spotlight. Her 31-year-old granddaughter, Zara Phillips, will be competing for the British equestrian team. Prince William and wife Kate are sure to be spotted around town, providing a dash of stately glamour to the proceedings.
And there are plenty of bold-face names at the venues: Bolt running in the 100 and 200 meters and 4x100 relay, Phelps swimming in multiple events again and going head-to-head with Lochte, who beat him twice at last year's world championships.
The star-studded U.S. basketball team features new NBA champion LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. Just three weeks after chasing a Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will be back at the All England Club vying for gold medals instead of trophies — wearing colorful team outfits instead of the all-white dress code
Women boxers will be competing in the Olympics for the first time, and the IOC is negotiating with Saudi Arabia to send its first female athletes to the games.
Others to watch include South African double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, who is poised to become the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics; China's Lin Dan, widely considered the greatest badminton player of all-time going for a second Olympic gold medal; Brazilian goal-scoring star Neymar in men's soccer; and Hiroshi Hoketsu, competing for Japan in equestrian at the age of 71.
The locals should have plenty to cheer about as Britain seeks to equal its surprising fourth-place medals table finish in Beijing. Among the contenders from Team GB are diver Tom Daley, heptathlete Jessica Ennis, swimmer Rebecca Adlington, three-time gold medalists Chris Hoy (track cycling) and Ben Ainslie (sailing), and a powerful team of rowers.
Despite 6.5 billion pounds ($10 billion) of improvements, serious concerns remain over whether the Underground system can cope with the millions of extra passenger journeys. Officials have warned of expected overcrowding and long delays at some key stations and urged Londoners to work from home or change their travel habits.
As for driving, the message has been: Don't even think about it. Many locals have complained that they are being inconvenienced while miles of dedicated Olympic roads and lanes are reserved for Olympic officials, athletes, media and VIPs.
The games will be protected by 12,000 police officers during peak times and 23,700 security staffers — a number that includes 7,500 troops. A no-fly zone will be established over Olympic venues.
London knows the threats all too well. Homegrown suicide bombers attacked the city's public transport system, killing 56 people, on July 7, 2005, the day after London was awarded the games.
"The games present an attractive target for our enemies," said Jonathan Evans, head of Britain's domestic spy agency MI5. "But the games are not an easy target, and the fact that we have disrupted multiple terrorist plots here and abroad in recent years demonstrates that the U.K. as a whole is not an easy target for terrorism."
No one has more riding on these games than Sebastian Coe, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters who led London's winning bid and has spearheaded the seven years of preparations. This project, he said, tops anything he accomplished on the track.
"It doesn't get any bigger," Coe said. "I remember the feeling I had 40 minutes before setting out on the track in front of 100,000 people. Now I wonder how I will measure that against the 40 minutes before the opening ceremony."
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